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Teju Cole discusses recent works

November 12, 2021

On Monday evening, author and photographer Teju Cole visited the College to deliver the Kenneth V. Santagata Memorial Lecture, titled “A View of A View.”

Cole walked the audience through his work, ranging from his tenure as a photography critic for the New York Times to his most recent book, “Black Paper: Writing in A Dark Time.” His main interest lies in exploring the relationship between words and photographs, a topic he currently teaches at Harvard University.

Geoffrey Canada Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History Brian Purnell, who attended the talk, was excited to learn from Cole in person after enjoying his work for years.

“He’s just a brilliant interdisciplinary artist and writer,” Purnell said. “Over the years, I’ve learned to use visual art as a way to teach the themes I see … That’s another way that I’ve come to learn about Cole’s writings on photography and his photographic work.”

Attendee Clay Wackerman ’22 was also interested in Cole’s interdisciplinary approach.

“I’m an English major, and I’ve also taken a lot of photography classes. I know that [Cole] is someone that straddles the interdisciplinary boundaries, so I thought it would be cool to see how he bridges those two worlds because I’ve been thinking about ways to do that with my own work,” Wackerman said. “He also came to our photography class [on Monday], and he was so great. I feel like all of his comments and insights were also thoughtful, deliberate and well-measured.”

Cole began his lecture by talking about his New York Times column, “On Photography,” in which he focuses on photography and justice. He is interested in exploring the backstory behind a picture and using the column as a formal space to advocate for the world he wants to see.

“What constitutes great photography?” Cole asked. “What deserves to be the center of our concern?”

It was in his book “Blind Spot” that Cole felt like he really delved into the tensions between photography and words. Cole became intrigued by vision in everyday life after temporarily losing sight in his left eye. He extensively explored the theme throughout his book, pairing words with his photography.

Cole emphasized that he does not shy away from experimenting with different forms. For his book “Human Archipelago,” he adopted a more flexible form to discuss the idea of hospitality. The book provides an example of the epistolary form, which he uses to write a letter to Claudia, an immigrant who was shot at the U.S.-Mexico border.

He then studied the connection between tourism and photographs in his book “Fernweh,” crafted from his five years of repeated travel to Switzerland. Cole made a point that landscapes, people and the environment are not innocent—they carry history.

“No places are boring,” Cole said. “You are boring,” evoking a burst of laughter from the audience.

Cole also discussed his book “Golden Apple of the Sun.”

“I really like how he talked about how is not afraid to ask a question that everyone else seems to be scared of asking,” attendee Ocean Park ’25 said. “I really enjoyed it. It was very thought-provoking.”

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