Teju Cole on photographing Switzerland, instead of adding to the “endless books about Mexico”
The novelist, curator and former photography critic for The New York Times Magazine talks to us about Fernweh, his new photobook documenting his Swiss travels.
Teju Cole is probably best known for his writing, as a novelist, art historian, and as the one-time photography critic of the New York Times Magazine. But he has also been a passionate photographer himself for almost as long as he’s been writing. Photography, he says, has simply taken longer to come to the fore of his creative life, even though he admits it has “taken up more hours of my time than writing ever has”.
Born in the US to Nigerian parents and raised in Lagos, Teju now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard. Speaking down the line from there, he describes the view outside his window: “It’s a strange spring, alternating between very beautiful days and very rainy days. But none of it really seems to be matching the reality of an utterly changed world.” He’s not wrong – the east coast of the US is in the middle of a near-total lockdown.
We’re speaking in this eerie spring, because Teju has just released a photobook with MACK called Fernweh. The word in German translates literally to “farsickness”, the opposite of homesickness, a longing to be far away. It’s an oddly apt idea, given the current global travel restrictions. “As I went to bed last night, it occurred to me that I haven’t been jet-lagged in about three months,” says Teju. That hasn’t happened much over the past decade.
Fernweh is a book of images taken over a period of six years during multiple trips to Switzerland. While the country is often thought to be “clean and efficient and boring”, Teju says this only served to excite his contrarian side, which led to an “obsession” with the country and everything it stands for. The photographs in the book are the culmination of this years-long obsession, stirring in their stillness and their composition.
It’s Nice That: Did you grow up knowing that you wanted to be artistic?
Teju Cole: I’ve been lucky in the sense that I was not dissuaded from following my interest in the arts. When I was a kid in Nigeria, I was always drawing and painting. So all of that was already cooking along, but when I went to university in Michigan, I decided to major in art and art history. I think my parents found that strange, to come all the way over from Africa to the United States and study this deeply impractical thing. But I assured them that I would study art undergrad and then go on to become a doctor or go to medical school. I did try to be a doctor but after a couple of years, I realised that medical school was not for me, and so I left that and went to study more art history.
INT: When did you first pick up photography, then?
TC: It was around 2005. That was when I really found my key, found my tone, in both writing and photography. That year, I decided I would write with as much emotional and psychological complexity as I could, but in the simplest language that would carry those thoughts. I was going to present in plain sight what I was trying to do, and see how far I could get, without any tricks. That same year was the first time I picked up a camera and started doing more with it than travel photography or taking photographs of family members. For everyone, photography is just part of normal life now. There’s a camera at any given event. You know how to run a dishwasher, you know how to use a microwave, you know how to click the shutter on the camera. They’re machines that are just part of normal life. But in 2005, I went to Nigeria for the first time in a long time and I took a series of photos there. That was the first time I was putting together pictures with artistic intent and value. Moving into 2006 marked the beginning of these two very profound obsessions: with photography and writing. But the photography part of myself (which by the way has taken up more hours of my time than writing ever has) came to public view much more slowly.
“As an artist, you cannot do everything. In fact, if you try to do everything, it means you end up not having a voice.”Teju Cole
INT: You spoke about how you wanted your writing to pack an emotional and psychological punch but also be simple. How does your photographic style match that?
TC: The dialogue between the two practices is much clearer to me now and I’m very happy about that. I feel, now, that my writing and my photography are being made by the same guy. I think I really arrived at that desired tone earlier with my writing. I’d describe it as a sort of polished, somewhat withdrawn, rather cool surface, but with emotion charging underneath. Finding my voice as a photographer, frankly, I think took longer. One of the things that helped me was really deepening my practice as a photography critic, because then I really took myself to school for photography. Every month I had to write an essay in The New York Times Magazine about photography for a large general audience. For each of those essays, I had to go to the library and sit down and read the relevant books, do a close read of other photographers’ work, and find out what it was I wanted to say in a way that could be interesting to experts as well as to people who’d never heard of this person before. That was a significant part of my education in photography, to be interested in everything, and then through that to assert for myself what the thing was I wanted to do. As an artist, you cannot do everything. In fact, if you try to do everything, it means you end up not having a voice.
INT: Who were the biggest influences on the work we see in Fernweh?
TC: I think what happened was that in 2014, arriving in Switzerland, I first started to feel this unity between subject, terrain, and my own inclinations, or rather the kind of work I wanted to do. So, even if I admire photographers like, say, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paolo Pellegrin, or Alex Webb, that ultimately was not the kind of work that I found I wanted to do – that work where you set up a complex visual field and then wait for somebody to enter the field, just so, and capture them so that everything seems to balance in this magical decisive moment. That was not the work I wanted to do in Switzerland. What I wanted to do was to point my camera at an apparently ordinary or banal scene and find the ways in which, by moving two feet to the left or three feet to the right or by stepping back five feet, something else starts to resolve in the organisation of the picture plane.
So, at that moment I started thinking a lot more about people like [Eugène] Atget and the idea that a space can emanate a charge based on the quietness of your vision as a photographer. And then, of course, all my contemporary influences, all the people who managed to photograph the contemporary, the everyday, to organise, specifically in colour, the ordinary and yet give it some kind of charge. Photographers like [William] Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Guido Guidi. Then I started to discover people like Joachim Brohm, who was subsequently a huge influence on me, because he is one of the masters of composition. And through all this, coming to the point where I’m absorbing all of these influences, taking them all in, and realising that this is a direction I want to move in. Then, when it came to the actual sequencing of Fernweh, I was much influenced by my study of Dayanita Singh’s Museum of Chance and Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance, specifically their ability to make you intuit a story, a world, out of disparate fragments.
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Spread from Fernweh
“Right now, among young American photographers, there are endless books about Mexico, about India. Nobody is going to Switzerland.”Teju Cole
INT: Studying so many other photographers’ work for so long, how did you avoid that overly influencing your own output?
TC: What actually happens when you go out there and shoot dozens and dozens of rolls of film over many visits over several years is, in fact, that the landscape itself starts to tell you what the work is. Your influences are there but, in a way, they sort of fall behind. And then the work really becomes between you and your subject. And that was what happened for me with Switzerland, so that the final edit was not about putting together all my best pictures of Switzerland. Quite the contrary: what I needed to put together was the pictures that spoke to the place and to my subject and to each other. And that collectively then is the emergence of a voice: something real, something me. It was the first time that I had full confidence to say: “this really looks like me.”
INT: Let’s talk about Switzerland, then. What was so fascinating about the country? Why did it become your subject for so many years?
TC: I was invited to Switzerland in mid-2014 to take up a literary residency. What was attractive was that Switzerland comes with all these associations that people think they know. They think it’s clean and efficient and boring. So the contrarian side of me was quite excited, because it’s not a place I would have picked randomly by myself. It was like fate picked it for me, to challenge me to find out what is interesting there. And when I arrived in Switzerland in June 2014, it was so beautiful, so clean and clear and crisp, that the challenge was on. My first trip was to Interlaken. The ease of the train journey there, the incredible blueness of the lake, and the vertiginousness of those mountains – I immediately fell in love with that terrain.
Meanwhile, I was starting to think about how you make sense of something that has already been, in a way, discursively concluded, already from the 19th Century. Switzerland means the place that your grandparents went for their honeymoon, Queen Victoria went there. What on earth do I have in common with Queen Victoria? In terms of what we find beautiful, I could not imagine somebody more opposite to me. But then the question became: why outsource that kind of pleasure to somebody else’s conclusion? Why not experience it for yourself and see if there’s anything there for you? My attraction for going off the beaten path told me that sometimes what’s off the beaten path is the path that was previously very well-trod and has now faded from being the centre of attention. Right now, among young American photographers, there are endless books about Mexico, about India. Oh, wow, yet another young American photographer making a photo book about Brazil. Sure. Nobody is going to Switzerland to make a book about it.
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Spread from Fernweh
“There is no romance to the fact that it takes me three hours to cover a 12-mile distance in Lagos.”Teju Cole
INT: There’s also a bit of politics under the surface here as well, isn’t there?
TC: I think that was also significant for me – suddenly, as a travelling African, to grapple once again with this question of who has the right to make a subject of what? Switzerland becomes this place that very much represents high white privilege. So, we would have thought that that subject would be closed off to almost everyone. And so for me to determine that, not only is it not closed off to me, and not only is the material allegedly unpromising, but what happens if I stubbornly decide that that difficult space is going to be my years-long obsession?
To add to all of that, part of the Nigerian side of this book, which no one would have anticipated, is that I have a very profound interest in infrastructure. Because I spent most of my childhood wondering why our infrastructure in Nigeria was not better. This was one very particular place, where wealth – whether ill-gotten or not – had been used to make the country immensely livable for the people who live there. There’s lots of politics in the book, but it’s deeply embedded. I remember meeting one person in particular who had spent quite a bit of time in Nigeria. And that’s what she found really exciting. And I said, “Well, yeah, that’s exciting for you as a visitor, but you know, life is terrible for people there.” I do not find it uninteresting that, in Zürich, I can get on a tram and in seven minutes safely get to where I’m going. I mean, talking about trains running on time is a joke. But then it’s also really real. It means that I can actually spend my time doing my work. There is no romance to the fact that it takes me three hours to cover a 12-mile distance in Lagos. It might be exciting the first two times, but if that’s your daily reality, it’s just a waste of your time.
“I’m finding more and more that the ‘Wow’ doesn’t interest me. It’s the ‘Hmm’ that interests me.”Teju Cole
INT: There are very few people in this book. It’s not just a book about nature, though – there are lots of manmade things in it. And yet humans don’t feature. Why is that?
TC: I go back to a thought that I saw very beautifully expressed by an Italian photographer called Gabriele Basilico, who was an urban landscape photographer. He talked about how a picture is immediately altered once there’s a human figure in it. If you have a cityscape and it’s completely blank, you have to deal with what you’re looking at as a picture. The moment you have a man in the lower-left corner, striding across the frame, he becomes the activation point, he activates the picture. The picture becomes about him. If I make a photograph of a rock, that becomes something that holds its meaning in reserve. If I make a photograph of a face, the meaning can no longer be held in reserve. If I make a photograph of somebody who’s smiling, it becomes a photograph literally about smiling, about happiness or about a joke or whatever tension is generated by that smiling. So we read the human presence, and the human face specifically, very emotionally and therefore, it is much more likely to rapidly disperse the psychic energy of a photo than something that is devoid of human presence. I wanted pictures with a very slow surface.
INT: Tell me more about what you mean when you talk about pictures with a “slow surface”?
TC: There’s a certain kind of a picture that gets put on social media that gets “Wow”, and again they’re very much decisive-moment pictures that are being activated by human presence in a particular way. And I would say I’m finding more and more that the “Wow” doesn’t interest me. It’s the “Hmm” that interests me. Getting a “Hmm” is a different set of skills and practices from getting a “Wow”. I think this fondness for “Hmm” situations is something John Gossage has expressed as well. In any case, this is what unites my ambition in my writing with my ambition in my photography. Of course, a risk is that you’re for sure going to lose certain viewers and readers, because your work is potentially going to be categorised as boring. You likely will not be able to reach them and that’s alright. That’s quite OK. Because you’re also working on building something that might take time, and the hope is that, finally, the work will have been worth the time it took to get there.