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February 1995-Book Report
Feeling The Spirit
by Holly Stuart Hughes
In Mali, a man finds sanctuary and shade in the village elders' meeting house. In Alabama, three elderly men rest on the porch of a grocery store. In Brazil, women in dugout boats make offerings to the Yoruban deity of the sea, while on a beach in Grenada, on the day of the Big Drum Ceremony, women dance a dance that has been passed down from the descendants of former slaves. A fruit vendor in Ghana, holding a basket of her wares, tosses back her turbaned head and laughs, and her easy grace is mirrored by an elegant young woman settling into a cab speeding up Manhattan's East River Drive.
Feeling The Spirit: Searching The World For The People Of Africa the new book by New York Times photographer Chester Higgins Jr., documents African art and traditions flourishing around the world. In his 26 years of traveling around Africa and to communities of African descendants around the Caribbean, South America, Europe and the United States,
Higgins' camera has revealed affinities between residents of Africa and their far-flung relatives dispersed by slavery. While art historians and anthropologists have long documented the powerful influence of African-born art, music, religions and culture, Higgins has digested these academic studies and produced something new and more personal. In his photographs and in his own reflective, nostalgic prose, Higgins has described the pull that has drawn him back to Africa again and again, and the bonds he has formed with people there.
Clearly, this is no ordinary photography book. Higgins' agent, Sandra Dijkstra, calls it 'an African-American 'Family of Man.' Its message seems to be well tuned to these times: as Afro centric history and black pride philosophies are hotly debated, Higgins celebrates African culture with more affection than cant. He writes, "Today more than ever, the challenge is to overcome our crisis of confidence, our fear of success and our unwillingness to take complete responsibility of ourselves. We must reclaim our history, recognize the strength of our character and rejoice in the vibrancy of our culture."
The book's publisher, Bantam Books, is gambling that Feeling The Spirit will have wide appeal. They gave Higgins an advance he calls "substantial" and ordered a first run of 50,000 copies. Most photo books sell, at best, 10,000 copies, but months before the October publication date, more than half the run had already been sold to booksellers. Bantam has also supported the book with print ads placed in newspapers during the Christmas shopping season, and booked Higgins for television and radio interviews. The book's editor, Rob Weisbach, whose previous projects for Bantam include the bestsellers Seinlanguage, about Jerry Seinfeld's television show and Couplehood by comedian Paul Reiser, says of Higgins' work, "I see this as a book every family, whether of African descent or not, should have in their library."
Given the uncanny appropriateness of the idea behind Feeling The Spirit, it may be surprising that it hasn't been done before. But there may never have been anyone better suited to produce this book than Chester Higgins. The photos in the book cover 26 years of his career, including pictures he took in his childhood home in Alabama, and on his first trip to Africa in the early Seventies. The lengthy bibliography lists the dozens of books of history, anthropology, and sociology that he has studied and absorbed. "It's my odyssey, my journey of self-discovery," he says, and when he talks about the book, with his characteristic energy and buoyant enthusiasm, it's clear that this subject has been the consuming passion of his adult life.
It's a life that has been shaped by dramatic events and historic figures of our times. The great-great-grandchild of a slave who fought in the Civil War, Higgins grew up in the rural South, came of age during the civil rights movement and moved North to New York at a time of racial unrest. His mentors, he says, have included the artist Romare Bearden and photographers Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein, and after he photographed Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in 1973, the charismatic leader became a powerful influence on his life and work. The frontispiece of Feeling The Spirit shows Higgins' portrait of the emperor and dedicates the book to his memory.
Higgins first got interested in photography as a student at Tuskegee Institute. Though he majored in business management, he studied under photographer P.H. Polk. Higgins knew that after graduation, he wanted to find a way to serve the civil rights struggle without being an organizer or a spokesperson. He thought photography would be the way to do it. "I could rail against racism, I could shout about it, or I could try to affect a change in racists," he says. "Every time I saw images of my people in the mass media, they were pathological. The images of people I knew, strong people like my Great Aunt Shugg, or my grandfather, who was a minister, or my mother, who was a teacher–they went unseen by America at large." As a photographer, he could provide an alternative portraits of blacks. "I think there is a real danger that you become what you consume, but I believe anyone can be open to change."
He began by taking photographs in his hometown and around Tuskegee. Black World magazine published four pages of his photos of country life. But Higgins decided that his target was the mainstream media, he had to go to its source: New York.
In 1969, the summer before he graduated from Tuskegee, Higgins took his portfolio to the picture editors of Newsweek, The New York Times and Life. "I wasn't looking for a job," he says, "I wanted criticism." At Look, he got to see Sam Young. While he was in Young's office, Higgins recalls, an older man stuck his head in the door and asked what he was doing. The man turned out to be Arthur Rothstein, former Farm Security Administration photographer-turned-photo-editor and legend. Higgins recalls, "He said, 'You have an interesting eye. You could use some lessons in composition, lighting, point of view.' I loved it." Under Rothstein's tutelage, Higgins spent the summer learning about photography, going to museum shows, learning to look at paintings, and shooting practice assignments.
With time, the studies turned into his first real assignment: to photograph Jesse Jackson and the organization he had just started in Chicago, Operation Push. Look devoted five pages to the story just before the magazine folded.
By 1971, young Higgins had already gained some success. He had landed two book contracts–one for a collection of photos of black women, the other of black men–and he was getting magazine assignments. He was ready to fulfill his dream: to photograph Africa.
The Photography of Chester Higgins Jr.
A 25-Year Voyage Of Discovery Took The Photographer CHESTER HIGGINS To More Than 30 Countries In Europe, Africa, The Caribbean, And North And South America. "It's An Odyssey" He Says Of The Resulting Work, "A Search For And Affirmation Of Myself"
I didn't go to school for photography; I learned from old men," the photographer Chester Higgins Jr., says a few minutes into our conversation in the staff lunchroom at the New York Times. Now 50, with hints of gray visible beneath his colorful African crown cap, he names P.H. Polk, Arthur Rothstein, Cornell Capa, Romare Bearden and Gordon Parks as those who tutored him informally over the years; he cites W. Eugene Smith as his "emotional idol" in the discipline of photojournalism; and he notes his sense of connection with the "lyricism" of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Few people I've met seem so intent on honoring their forebears, mentors, and models as does the affable, mild-mannered Higgins. His eye to the past correlates with a career-long drive to reconstruct–and even, to some extent, construct–the lineage of African Americans and to investigate the broader historical phenomenon of what he has come to call the African diaspora.
The most recent result of these labors–"Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa"–takes the form of a massive exhibition that made its debut at the International Center of Photography in New York City in October 1995, drew some 20,000 visitors during its run there, and is currently on a national tour under the Center's auspices. It's now on view (through the 23rd of March) at the Smithsonian Museum, Center for African American History and Culture, in conjunction with another traveling exhibition by Higgins entitled "Invoking the Spirit: Worship Traditions in the African World." The handsomely designed, oversize book version of Feeling the Spirit" (Bantam, $50 hardbound) has already sold over 30,000 copies.
In some circles, it's considered fashionable nowadays to treat the demise of traditional documentary photography–or, at least, it's presumably thorough "discreditation"–as a given. In fact, the form has never claimed a longer roster of committed practitioners, nor attracted so many viewers. Reports of its death, like that of Mark Twain's, have been greatly exaggerated. To be sure, the public response to Feeling the Spirit serves as evidence of that, and also as validation of the accessibility of the work of a man who, in describing, says modestly, "Essentially, I'm a social anthropologist with a camera."
Higgins, a New York Times staff photographer since 1975, went in search of his roots (he traces himself back to a once-enslaved Civil War veteran), ended up looking for present-day Africa, and found it everywhere. The resulting pictures–annotated with informative, somewhat autobiographical texts by the photographer himself–celebrates this extraordinary survival, exploring the endurance and transmutation of African sensibility in countries around the world. Inevitably, they also mourn the destructive aspects of that forced dispersal and, at the same time, quietly but firmly accuse.
But Higgins proves himself less interested in placing blame than in locating and cherishing the persistence of core elements of African culture. In this study, these range from images of the crossed arms of a skeleton uncovered in 1992 in a 17th-century African burial ground in lower Manhattan to pictures of Vodou, Candomble, and Santeria ceremonies in the Caribbean, and on to images annotating traditional African customs around the world. He is equally intent on placing the experience of African Americans within the larger context of their kinship not only with uprooted and expatriated blacks all over the globe but also–as in pictures that portray Moslem and Ethiopian Orthodox worshippers in both the U.S. and in Africa–with those who still inhabit their original homelands. "My life mission as a photographer is more political than esthetic," Higgins admits, "though I understand and appreciate the esthetics and work hard to master them. My visual talents are harnessed to a mission: to document the lives and times of people of African descent and to highlight the decency, dignity, and character among my people that go unexplored in the major media. It's an odyssey, a search for and affirmation of myself." Though more quietly radical in his methodology than Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Higgins, like them, defines the situation of African Americans as an international rather than a merely domestic issue. "It's a world message," the photographer says.
Also like King and Malcolm X, Higgins began his life's work close to home–in New Brockton, a small village in southeast Alabama. He never studied photography formally; he majored in business management (with a minor in sociology) at Alabama's Tuskegee University. His first encounter with the medium came during his student years. Working on the campus newspaper, he met P.H. Polk, one of the major early figures of African American photography. "P.H. Polk put my first camera in my hand," recalls Higgins. "I come out of the tradition of Tuskegee photographers–Polk and, before him, C. M. Battey. Mr. Battey was Mr. Polk's teacher, and Mr. Polk's was mine." After Tuskegee, Higgins came to New York, where in 1969 he met Arthur Rothstein (once with the Farm Security Administration) at Look magazine. Rothstein promptly took him under his wing, critiquing his work regularly and sending him off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to study Old Master paintings. "My first lessons in how to see," says Higgins of the long hours spent at the museum.
Higgins thrived under his tutor, who introduced him to another photojournalist who subsequently became the director of New York's International Center of Photography, Cornell Capa; together, they brought Higgins into the New York photography scene. Artist Romare Bearden, notes Higgins, "was another great teacher. He helped me develop an understanding of and appreciation for the Dutch masters–Rembrandt, Van Eyck. I used to go to his apartment for about 10 or 12 years. On Saturday mornings he'd hold court. As a black intellectual, I learned how to plumb those issues of identity–because that's what my work is really about–from Bearden, and also from photographer, writer, composer Gordon Parks."
Higgins met Bearden when he asked the older artist if he could take his portrait for his 1974 book, Drums of Life, which documents the lives of black men throughout the United States. (Higgins's first book, Black Woman, appeared in 1970.) In the meantime, he had made his first visit to Africa, in 1971. "The trip really opened my head up, that there was a different reality of African people other than I knew in America," says Higgins. "It was the first time that I was not a minority."
In 1975 Higgins joined the photography staff of the New York Times, often taking on assignments about black subjects that other black staffers turned down as secondary stories. It's always preferable, he argues, to have such stories told by "a belonger rather than a nonbelonger." Moreover, Higgins wanted to be heard. "I can make pictures in Alabama that show the decency, dignity, and character of people of African descent, but everyone in Tuskegee agrees with me. The reason I left Alabama to come to New York is that world opinion is being formed by the mass media that's centered here," he explains.
"I wanted to be in the midst of that. I wanted to be on the national stage of this debate. I wanted my ideas, my way of seeing, within that currency of thought. If there's a story to be done, I want to do it. I can go out and try to make a difference with my images, so I do." Regardless of whether he's photographing for the Times or for his own projects, the ongoing challenge, he says, is "learning to see other people through their own eyes."
Working with what he calls "a sense of urgency," impelled by the awareness that whatever he's looking at may not exist a decade later, Higgins describes himself as a fisherman, photographing "without knowing what the end result may be," checking periodically to see "what I've been able to snare in my net," finding, every now and then, that his catch contains the raw material for one project or another.
Which is to say that he did not set out to document the African diaspora, but instead, to his surprise, one day found himself knee-deep in doing so. In the late 1970s, Higgins–with writer Orde Coombs (his collaborator on Drums of Life–researched and organized a book entitled Some Time Ago, a portrait in photographs of black life in the U.S. between 1850 and 1950. Meanwhile, he had returned to Africa numerous times (as of today, he has made at least 17 visits). But Higgins cites the year 1983 as the point at which the present project revealed itself to him as a work-in-progress. "That's when I identified the project in my own head, saw the potential of it, and realized I had a lot of gaps to fill." He credits Cornell Capa with forcing that recognition by asking him to define what he was doing and then insisting that he justify the use of the term "diaspora"–most commonly used for the Jews' departure from Israel–to describe his subject.
The result, Feeling the Spirit, is Higgins's most intricate project to date–one that took him to over 30 countries in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and North and South America. Whether one calculates it to have begun with his early work at Tuskegee in the second half of the 1960s (the book opens with a picture of his great-aunt Shugg) or with his first trip to Africa in 1971, 25-year personal voyage of discovery comes to fruition here. There is nothing comparable to it in photography; others may have investigated aspects in greater depth, but no one before Higgins has attempted anything of similar scope.
The photographer takes us from a view through the Door of No Return in the House of Slaves–the captives' last vision of Africa from the port of Dakar in Senegal–to scenes of his hometown in Alabama, from Paris to Martinique to Ethiopia. He reveals how what Bearden called "the persistence of ritual" manifests itself in both the mundane and the exalted–in work, worship, music making, and other aspects of everyday life.
Feeling the Spirit will continue to travel for several years. Higgins's hope is that it will eventually be shown abroad as well. Asked if he is considering taking "Feeling the Spirit" in other directions, he answers, "I have enough material"–an archive of 275,000 images–"that I can easily do a CD-ROM. Until now, my plate has been full. It's just a matter of time and the right opportunity. I'm sure it will come."
Meanwhile, in addition to his ongoing work at the Times, Higgins is pursuing a project devoted to Egypt, though its exact shape has not yet revealed itself to him; he's made seven trips there so far. "I study Egyptology very hard. But I don't know when I'm going to be able to turn around and do that book about Egypt. I don't know yet whether it's a book about the East African corridor–Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia–or the patrimony of African people, or the ma/patrimony of spirituality. But I keep working. "I keep digging," he says. "One day nuggets will appear to me, and it will come to me that this is what I should do, this is what can be done–like an epiphany."
A.D. Coleman is the photography critic for the New York Observer. His most recent book is Tarnished Silver: After the Photo Boom (Midmarch Arts Press).
Because the records are there, you can go back and see for yourself what people were doing, how they lived, and even how they withstood the conditions that were sometimes intolerable. It makes you feel good to see that, against all those odds, those people survived. And it gives you a sense of continuance, of belonging, that you're part of a long tradition.
The renowned New York Times photographer says :"I never attended a school for photography; I learned the art by studying the faces of my elders." Higgins was drawn into their humanity to the point where his Nikon follows people of color throughout the world.
Chester Higgins, Jr. doesn’t hide his far-reaching ambition — "to photography people in whatever part of the world I find them; to capture their faces, their customs, their ceremonies, their more or less illustrious past, their present — at times joyous, at times desperate — their life, their culture and, above all, their greatness as a people." He is well into that journey, "but even though," he says, "there is so much more to do." Camera in hand, Higgins is cut out for this work. He is one of the one of the most important photographers today.
In October 1995, his exhibition, Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa, attracted immense, continuous crowds when it was presented at the International Center for Photography in New York City. The show then traveled the United States and Bantam Books published a magnificent volume which continues to be a best seller. Another exhibition, Invoking the Spirit: Worship Traditions in the African World is taking Higgins’ images world-wide. The exceptional testimonials evoke a complex reaction: Does one admire the artist or the dignity of a people the rest of the world has, until now, kept at the margins of society.
Higgins hosted me at his Brooklyn brownstone, one of those old, one-family, three-story houses that has seen better days — where the floors creak and the fixtures leave something to be desired — but oozes a warmth no modern home can match. Higgins has filled it with books, paintings, files, tables covered with papers, boxes filled to overflowing… the typical world of the intellectual who does not have time to lose and navigates in a splendid disorder.
He tells me how he arrived at photography.
How did you think photographs were made?
Did you return home to photograph your relatives?
Had you already learned everything?
Who was he?
You were lucky. Or perhaps it was due to your youthful innocence— your first weapon.
Where did that idea come from?
When I was nine years old, I was made a minister in the church in my village. This did not allow me to be a boy, like I should have, but pushed me into seriously reflecting on life. When I was twenty, I knew nothing of photography, but I already knew much about bigotry and human behavior."
According to you, where is bigotry born?
But how come the whites don’t have it in for the Chinese or the Indians. Aren’t they also different?
Do you think your photographs are a form of rebellion against white Americans?
It doesn’t make any difference to you, if you’re dealing with people in Ghana, or Alabama or Brooklyn?
At a certain moment, however, you felt the need to leave the confines of New York, even America.
What were your impressions?
When did you understand?
After the publication of books like Black Woman and Drums of Life, you dedicated yourself to the black population in America.
How long did it take to collect the images for Feeling the Spirit?
Do you agree that today we can speak of Black Renaissance in America?
by Casey Allen
When I was a student at Tuskegee University, I was business manager for the school newspaper, The Campus Digest. We were using photographs for national ads but not for the local ads. I was struck with the possibility of increasing our revenue by convincing local merchants to increase the size of their ads by placing a picture of themselves or their business in the ad. I had hired the university photographer, P.H.Polk, to make the photographs that would make up these new ads. One day we were on a deadline at the press, and the only thing missing were his photographs. He was slow getting the pictures to me.
I drove to Mr. Polk’s studio. I explained to him our predicament and told him that we needed the photographs and I wasn’t leaving until I had them. Luckily he had made the photographs but had not processed the film. While waiting for him to finish the processing, he brought me some of the negatives to look at — I’d never seen negatives. I thought, what an incredible idea, this whole reality condensed onto this small piece of material. It’s kind of magical.
Then he asked me if I’d ever seen a print made. He took me into his darkroom, with only a low red light, put some paper in the easel, adjusted the enlarger, and made the exposure. When he put this paper into a pool of developer and I saw the image emerge, it was truly magic.
While I was waiting for the prints to dry, I went out into his studio to look at his many pictures on the walls. A group of the pictures had some people who weren’t well-dressed, but what was striking was that they had such dignity, such character. They reminded me of the people in my small hometown, my great-aunts and uncles in a little country town of 800 — New Brockton in southeast Alabama.
When I saw these pictures, I thought, wow, I’d like to have some pictures of my Great-aunt Shugg, who was a midwife, and her brother, my Great-uncle Forth, two people for whom I have a great deal of love and affection. But as a student, I did not have the money to hire him to travel 100 miles south to make these pictures or to afford a camera.
When Mr. Polk came in with my prints, I told him about the pictures I wanted to make, but that I didn’t have the money for him to do it. I asked him if he would teach me how to make pictures so I could go to my hometown and make my own pictures. He agreed to give me some lessons, and about six months later, I bought my first camera.
Because of Mr. Polk, I learned how to use a camera so I could make pictures of my Great-aunt Shugg. She’s the first picture in the book, Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (Bantam 1994), the woman standing at the fence. She died at the age of 97, about ten years ago. Her brother, my Great-uncle Forth, is still alive. This mast March, he turned 105.
FIGHTING THROUGH PICTURES
But is also allowed me to see something that I had been denying, that most black people denied at the time. Whenever there was an image of us, we were almost always demonized, marginalized. You were either a law-breaker or a pathological deviant on the edge of society. Nothing reflected the multi-dimensionality of the people in my community.
So I began to think that the camera’s visual image could communicate this multi-dimensional reality. I had a choice. I could either rail against racism, or try to find the images that were more reflective of the people I know. So that became my mission — to use the camera to tell the broad story about my people who had not been able to tell their own stories.
All of us are products of our socialization. But I believe not all people are racists, not all people are narrow-minded. I know there are people who can deal with new information, who can say, wow, I never thought of this before. They can see the sense of it and go with it.
That’s really what my mission has been about, to try to connect with those people. Finding your allies is really the most important thing in getting anything done in life. So I’ve tried to find the message, to capture the reality that’s there, package it in a visual message, then try to find my allies who will help me get that visual message out.
A SOLID FOUNDATION FROM MOM
As I was growing up, having a mother who was a school teacher often turned out to be a major drag. That meant that every day after school I had to do my homework first. Then, before I could go out to play with my friends, she had to inspect my homework. If I had any wrong answers, I had to go back and correct them immediately.
But she was a very good teacher. Plus, she had books and encyclopedias at home that I could use. She gave me my basic academic skills, study skills, an understanding of how to retrieve information. She gave me a very good foundation, but she also instilled in me a love for knowledge. The skills I learned from her still forms my life.
In fact, I still live my life pretty much like a college student. I’m up every morning at 6:30AM and I do my shooting for The New York Times during the day. Every evening after dinner, I’m in my library researching or working in my picture files from 9:30PM until midnight or 1AM.
I came to New York in the summer of 1969 on the way to my first trip to Africa. I had a portfolio of photographs that I wanted to show picture editors. Not because I thought I was good enough to be hired, but because I thought these guys were in a unique position to give me criticism. As a business person, I understood that I had to be competitive. They would be able to tell me how I could improve myself.
On that trip, I was fortunate enough to meet Sam Young, who was then the photo editor at Look magazine. While that meeting was going on, a bald-headed man stuck his head in to ask Sam a question. He saw that Sam was looking at my portfolio and asked who I was. I introduced myself. He said to come by his office when I was finished.
When I finished with Sam, I went to this other man’s office. As he looked at my work, I asked for some criticism. "So many ideas and concepts poured out his mouth in a way and that opened my eyes for the first time. It was incredible. I said, "Look, can I try to shoot what you’re telling me so I’m sure I understand what you’re saying? I’ll process it and come back tomorrow."
He said, "Sure. Just ask for me. My name is Rothstein, Arthur Rothstein."
That started a whole process for the summer — shooting, talking to him, getting ideas, trying to put those ideas into visual practice. Then I’d come back, asking how I did, what did I miss, what more did I have to learn? Over that summer we developed a close relationship.
Somehow that summer, I also managed to get a contract from a publisher to do my first book. When I came back to New York the following summer, I had finished my book contract and my book was due out in September. I started freelancing wherever I could find work.
My first magazine job came from Rothstein. I replaced a guy who was an FSA photographer, John Vachon. Mr. Rothstein called me in. "I think you are ready for this, but we need to talk a lot." He was very much into planning the picture, picture possibilities, talking about them, talking around them. He really taught me the value of a visual vocabulary.
PART TWO:APPLYING HIS CRAFT WORLDWIDE
My first excursion to Africa was in 1971. I went on a press junket with a friend, senior editor Peter Bailey, from Ebony magazine. This trip took us to East Africa — Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. We spent 10 days there. The first thing that struck me was that I was no longer part of a minority, I was the majority. Normalcy was me. I no longer had to deal with a hostile majority culture. People might dislike me, but would dislike me because I am me, not because my skin is different. It was a real lifting off my shoulders. For the first time, I was in a place where I was not the nigger.
I started going back and forth to Africa, living there three to six months at a time, documenting the countries. I always look for private, intimate pictures. But the people have to accept me, know that I like tem —hey, I’ve come to sit and be here for a while, let’s have a visit. Being a country boy I think is why I get along with people. I don’t put distance between us. I also don’t try to judge people, it just gives me a heartburn.
That first trip, my eyes were really bugged out; I was trying to take in everything. At the time, I feverishly made pictures of everything I saw. But it taught me that I did not have the frame of reference to understand what I was looking at. Merely being of African descent was not enough for me to make images that brought some understanding to what I was doing. I made the same mistake that a lot of African Americans make: We may be of African descent, but we are more American than we are African.
When I cam back, I leaned on my academic side. I started reading, pulling apart multi-layers of the African fabric. I needed books that would talk to me about what is going on in the reality of these different countries. What are the cultural issues, the social issues, the political issues of the day? What are the historical backgrounds? Who are these people, how are they different, and how do they perceive these differences among each other?
RECRUITED BY THE TIMES
When I came back to New York, I was able to get some pictures published on the Op_Ed page of The New York Times that showed how horrible this drought had become with hundreds of people dying every day for the lack of food and water. John Morris, who had been picture editor at The Times and was currently setting up a syndicated picture service for The Times, called me and asked me how I’d like to work for The Times. Even though I’d done some freelancing for The Times, I didn’t really care that much about it. It would mean I’d have to stop doing something I believed was very important. I told my ten-wife about rejecting the job and she thought I was crazy.
I called John the next day. "I talked to my wife last night and she thinks I’m crazy. I’m interested. What should I do? I was hired in March 1975 but not by John — one of those strange things that happen.
My stuff had been appearing in the "Arts and Leisure" section of The Times. Sy Peck, the editor, had a picture assistant named Rose Newman who gave me assignments. Shortly after I talked to John I received a call from somebody at The Times named Abe Rosenthal to come in for an interview. At the beginning of the interview I asked why he’d called me. He said it was because of his sister. She’d showed him my latest book, Drums of Life, and told him that he should hire me.
I asked, "Who is your sister?"He replied, "Rose Newman."
Another picture editor I remember whose attitude I became aware of was John Durniak. Sometime in the ‘80s, he’d sent me out to investigate homeless shelters. Sleeping in the shelters at night, I caught the flu and gave it to my family as well. I was still feeling its effects when Durniak ordered me out to New Jersey to cover a night time toxic explosion.
I said, "I can’t do this because that mask is obviously inadequate and I also don’t physically feel up to it."He tried to get me fired. Some people are like avalanches — you can’t do anything about tem, just stay out of their way. A few months later, it was John who was fired.
Most picture do well to sell from 5,000 to maybe 8,000 copies. Feeling the Spirit has already sold 30,000 copies out of its first run of 52,000. By Christmas, we expect to sell out the rest of the printing.
I went along with the exhibition when it went to Senegal. During the day I’d walk around Dakar to meet people, talk to them, make pictures. One day on the street, I met three men together. We walked along for an hour or two, finally ending up on a rocky beach, still talking. As we stat down on the beach, one of them confessed that at the beginning they were afraid I might be CIA, but after talking with me they knew that I was not.
I traveled again with the exhibition when it went to Nigeria. For nine trips to Africa, people kept telling me don’t go to Nigeria, don’t go to Nigeria. The unofficial culture of Nigeria seems to be "how quickly can I separate you from your money and what is the bet way to do it?" This isn’t to say that all Nigerians are extortionists. I’m sure the many are not; it’s just very hard to find one. It’s nothing personal. Everybody does it to everybody.
Everything was fine as long as I stayed with the USIA group. Late one afternoon, however, I went out by myself to shoot some pictures. A policeman stopped me. He said, "You can’t take pictures without paying a tax, but we can’t take care of this until tomorrow. I’ll have to put you in jail and confiscate your camera."
I knew there was no tax in Nigeria for making pictures. I said, "You can’t have my camera, but I’ll go stay in your home until tomorrow, then we can go to the police station together. Do you have a wife? You do? Fine! I need a woman tonight. I’ll take yours."He decided I was too crazy, se he let me go. In a situation like that, you have to remember not to be American, not to have a deadline.
SPEAKING A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
My mission has been to reinvent the visual document as it pertains to people of African descent. When you look at the pictures of African people in the media, I figured out long ago that three elements were missing — the elements of decency, dignity and virtuous character. With my camera, I’m attempting to endow these discoveries with these qualities, something that has rarely been done before.My project is now limited to my vacation time. So I’ve been working on these three-and four-week vacation for years. Sometimes I was able to document two and three communities a year. The Times would let me work overtime, for which I had a choice of accepting money or compensory time. One time, in about a year-and-a-half I was able to accumulate eight additional weeks. So that year’s vacation I was able to take off three months from work and I spent a month at a time on three separate continents — South America, Africa and the Caribbean area.
When I was trying to decide what I wanted to study in school, my Great-uncle Forth said to me, "Chester, whatever you decide to do, it’s very important that you make a mark on life or you may very well die, undeclared." Well, that blew the roof off my head. The fact that you could die undeclared because you had done nothing was a shocker. I’m not sure whether that’s worse than being in Hell. It reminds me that life is short, birth is fatal.
PART THREE:ADAPTING TO HIS SURROUNDINGS
MAKING PALS WITH POLAROIDS
After a couple of days giving out Polaroids, I take out my camera, the 35mm. By then everybody has Polaroids and because of the Polaroids I get to know everybody in the community — the old people, the young people, the kids. But when they find out that the 35mm camera doesn’t give out a picture, they get bored and don’t pay any attention to me. Now I can keep shooting pictures in private, intimate situations, and they don’t care.My pictures are of the folded moments, the little moments that are tucked away. The only way I can get to those moments is to also be tucked in there, become part of the family, part of the fabric. Eat the food they eat, sleep where they sleep, be on their schedule.
Another time in Ghana, I came out of my house and walked down a path. As I came back I heard something behind me. I turned around. About 20 or 30 feet behind me on the same path was this man beating the ground. I went back, "What are you doing?""This black mamba was right here."
THE SLITHERING SAND
A Father’s Rite
© Chester Higgins Jr.
I took my son to Africa. For three weeks my 20-year-old son and I explored the past and present of our people in Egypt and Ethiopia. I wanted him to see what I regard as the land of his heritage; I wanted him to experience the ecstasy I felt on my first visit to Africa when I was in my 20’s.
I had envisioned a kid of rite of passage for my son; what transpired between us became a turning point–in our relationship, for me as his father and I hope for him as well.
Being a father seems to require skills never taught to me. Throughout my son’s 20 years and my daughter’s 22 years, I have often felt as is I were in a boat slipping along the water in a dark night without a lamp or a lighthouse to guide me. I felt like an imposter. I was reared by my stepfather, a distant man, and at 19 I sought out my biological father, whom I had never known. Those experiences made me determined to take the role of a father seriously.
When my son was 9 years old and my daughter was 11, their mother and I divorced, and it nearly sank the already adrift boat. With divorce often comes anger, a welter of conflicting feelings and much pain for everybody. New York State court-restricted visitations for a father can reduce his relationship with his children to that of an uncle. Having been deprived of my own father, I was determined to maintain as much contact with my children as the law would allow.
For my 15th trip to Africa, in July, to photograph the reinterment of His Majesty Haile Selassie on what would have been his 100th birthday, I decided to ask my son, Damani, to come along as my assistant. Damani, who has locked his hair, shares my love of His Majesty and of raggae, the music of the Rastafarians who worship Selassie. I added to our itinerary a stopover in Egypt so that my son could also see the pyramids, temples and tombs of our ancestors.
Haile Selassie’s reinterment was postponed by the new Ethiopian regime about two weeks before we were to arrive. Though deeply disappointed, neither Damani nor I considered canceling our trip, nor did the thousands of Rastafarians who annually gather for Selassie’s birthday. While we were in Ethiopia, my son in his locks blended into the local population; his enthusiasm for this venerable African country warmed my heart. On a four-day trip to visit the ancient sacred city of Lalibala, where in the 12th century, churches were hewn out of the surrounding mountains, I had a dream. In my dream, I saw two men, one older and one younger, facing one another against a backdrop of temples and pyramids. The father was speaking as he anointed the head of his son.
I became enamored of the possibility of enacting a ceremony with my son in Africa. For the next six days I privately wondered what words to use in such a ceremony. Gradually the words came to me. By the time we arrived in Cairo, I was ready. I told my son that there was a ceremony that I wanted to perform with him in the tombs at Luxor, Egypt. His eyes shone with anticipation. But I wondered if he would still be receptive after my next statement. In the dream I remembered that the son was anointed, as it were, with a dry substance. I took this to mean powder rather than oil was used. But what powder? I ruled out ground herbs and flowers, and finally settled on sand. Sand represents the Sahara, and sand also contains the remains of the ancient people of Pharaonic Egypt. That made metaphysical sense to me, but in the real world, young adults or almost anybody for that matter, are disinclined to have sand poured on their hair.
"I will need sand to anoint your head," I told my son.
"Sand?" he asked, hesitantly. "How much?"
"Just a little; you can put some in a film canister," I said hastily. We both knew a 35-millimeter film canister wouldn’t hold much sand. "Take the canister and find sand you feel special about and I’ll use that."
Once he was in control of the amount of sand and where it would come from, he decided to take some from the desert in the shadow of the pyramids in Cairo. Days later, when we reached Luxor, he collected more from around the remains of the Temple of Karnak–one of the largest, oldest stone temples in the world.
The next afternoon we sailed across the Nile to Thebes and to the Valley of the Kings, a basin formed by towering mountains. From the heavenly perch of the ancient Egyptian gods, the valley resembles a huge bowl to which there is one narrow entrance, flanked by more tall peaks. The tomb of the Pharoahs are hewn into the lower parts of the mountains that form the basin. Inside each tomb, 12 foot-square passageways lead down several thousand feet into the solid rock. The scene that greets modern-day visitors to these sacred chambers is astonishing: Ornately painted walls reveal images of animals, people and scenes that were part of the real and imaginary lives of Pharaonic Egyptians. It was here, inside one of the tombs of an 18th Dynasty Pharoah, that I decided to perform the ceremony revealed to me in my dream in Ethiopia.
In front of an enormous wall painting of Osiris, the god of resurrection, my son and I faced each other. I poured the sand he had collected into the palm of my left hand, and with my right, I anointed the top of his head with this sand. Looking into his eyes, I said:
"I, your father, anoint the crown of your head with the soil of Africa. This piece of earth is a symbol of the lives of your ancestors. It is a bonding of their lives to yours. Like your father, you, too, are African. We are Africans, not because we were born in Africa, but because Africa was born in us. Look around you and behold us in our greatness. Greatness is an African possibility; you can make it yours. Just as the great ones before you have, by their deeds, placed their names on history, so can you by your deeds place your name on tomorrow…So here, in the company of those great ones who have waited patiently for your visit–you are loved, you are encouraged. Our faces shine toward yours. Go forward; may you live long, may you prosper and have health."
We hugged each other, engoying the specialness of the moment. Leaving him alone inside the tomb to mediate, I walked back toward the light and waited for him outside on the valley floor.
Here in the land of our ancient fathers, in the tomb of one of the great fathers of the ancient Egyptian empire, my perception of what it means to be a father was unalterably expanded and enhanced.
The Voice of Red
© Chester Higgins Jr.
Red is today's power color! It’s dramatic, provocative and seductive, and it commands your attention. Red fabric shimmers against deep black skin like fire glowing in the night.
My mother was well acquainted with the awesome power of red. In fact, she understood its mysterious force so well that she wanted to protect me from it. From as far as I can remember, she declared her everlasting enmity for the color. "It's too loud and too ethnic," she’d say. As a child, I was not allowed to wear a single piece of clothing that was solid red!
I grew up puzzled and annoyed by my mother's inexplicable campaign to discredit the color red, but her influence left its mark on me. It wasn’t until I was 27 years old that I finally broke free of her prohibition. It happened in Africa.
My fifth trip to the continent brought me to Ethiopia, where a meeting of the Organization of African Unity promised an opportunity to photograph the African heads of state. One day, as I waited at the Addis Ababa airport for a glimpse of arriving dignitaries, my attention was pulled from the action around the arriving airplanes to a group of men making their way across the tarmac. I could sense the power of one man in particular before I could even see him. Although he was a person of such small stature that he was dwarfed by the others alongside him, something about his aura so profoundly moved me that I lowered the camera from my eyes so I could have a better look. It was only after he passed me that I learned I had been in the presence of His Majesty Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia.
That seconds-long encounter set me on a quest to discover all I could about His Majesty and his country. Among the smorgasbord of new knowledge I devoured over the course of years was a story about the pageantry in Haile Selassie's palace. The Emperor, I was told, held court while standing on a red cushion at the foot of his throne.
That did it for me. My conflicted feelings about the color red vanished. I began wearing red socks and continue to do so in honor of His Majesty. Eventually I would be seen sporting solid shirts, sweaters, jackets, hats, scarves, belts, and even red, according to my mood. From then on I never gave much thought to my mother’s crusade against red.
Not until recently, anyway. A year after her death in 1994, I traveled to southwest Alabama for a family. Surrounded by my relatives, I was blessed with hearing story after story about the woman who raised me. At some point I brought up the subject of my mother’s curious hatred of the color red. For a moment everyone in the room fell silent and stared at me. "You mean you don't know?" someone finally asked.
Red, I was told, had altered our family history. For us, it meant the difference between slavery and freedom. My great-great-grandfather, as the story goes, had just reached puberty and was alone in the African forest performing the initiation rituals demanded by his village. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a distant red banner that stood out against the green backdrop, and he became distracted. When he went to investigate, his life – as well as the lives of all of his descendants – was changed forever. The banner belonged to a band of slave hunters, who seized this strong young man and shipped him across the Atlantic to the Americas. In spite of numerous attempts to escape, he remained until he was finally able to free himself by joining the victorious Union Army during the Civil War.
To this day, I don’t understand why my mother never shared this rich family legend. But I do understand her strong feelings about wearing such a bold color. When I was growing up in the Deep South, a black boy had to be careful not to call too much attention to himself. My mother‘s protective instincts were working overtime, and for that I'm grateful.
But today I reclaim red, and all the loudness, boldness, and ethnicity it evokes. I see it reflected in each of the flags of the countries of Africa. It’s the color associated with the ancient kingdoms of Nubia and Kush, and the powerful West African deity of thunder and lightening, Shango. Red saturates our African culture and is woven throughout the stories that make up our legacy. For me, it represents a bridge to my past.
© Chester Higgins Jr.
What was your personal and emotional inspiration for this work? Where were you in your own life when you created this piece? Be as specific and comprehensive as possible.
This picture is in honor of a much-loved shrine found in the homes and working places of southern blacks in my home state of Alabama. Like the rest of my people, I embraced the sacred presence of Dr. King’s life and his work. This shrine preserves a memory – his inspiration. Living among us and standing up for our people, Dr. King inspired us all to rise up with him. He is the hero on whose shoulders we all stand.
Growing from childhood to young adulthood in the state of Alabama and being African American had its moments of joy and terror. Jim Crow laws locked us into a prison without walls. We were disenfranchised members of society who served as public punching bags for the white community. The few places where we hoped to find uninterrupted peace were our homes, barber shops, funeral homes, churches, and schools. This living on the edge limited our ability to express ourselves freely without fear of revenge. In the company of whites, we were often filled with uncertainty and tension. Ever present was the possibility of instant death at the hands of any racist white person. Such murderers were always protected from prosecution by the privilege that came with their skin color.
In an environment where the black people of Alabama were terrorized by white oppression, the voice of Martin Luther King Jr., brought hope. He spoke out to the powers in our state exposing their tyranny. In his sermons, he judged whites as equals and declared them guilty of terrorism. Before his time, no one had taken up our cause. Whenever he was on the radio or appeared on television, every black person would listen. The sight of him – the sound of his voice – would cause some to fall on their knees or raise their arms to the sky. For them, a Lord of Deliverance had come. Finally, God had sent a Moses to be among us and bring his people out from under the tyranny of white civilization.
Southern blacks held Dr. King in high regard. His image always found a revered place in our households. However, after his tragic death by assassination and the assassinations of both President John Kennedy and Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, a composite image of all three of these great champions of equality became the must-have icon in our homes and businesses. The images of King, Kennedy, and Kennedy were the only three K’s we could embrace. We considered these three men to be our friends. We honored them for the ideals they stood for, and we mourned their loss.
I made this picture of the shrine in the barbershop when I was a student at Tuskegee University. This was a local business. The Barber, like almost everybody else in that small town, wanted something of King to be in his life – to be with King as he carried out his daily labors. He and his customers found comfort in this image. The spirit of King triggered all our memories, our hopes, our pride, and our determination to continue.
How is this work a personal response to the life, letters and work of Martin Luther King Jr. How did MLK Jr., impact your life as a creative artist?
In college during the sixties, so many of us in Alabama became student foot soldiers in the Civil Rights movement marching against Governors George Wallace and John Patterson. We were answering the call of Dr. King and his movement to mobilize against forces of inequality. Because of my personal experience in these marches, I became painfully aware of what a devastating blow the media dealt to people of color. I took note of the pictorial coverage of us advocating for equal rights in Montgomery. As American citizens, we were participating in our constitutional right to petition our government, but the media cast us as thugs and potential arsonists.
This was a lesson to me. I saw firsthand that our story was being marginalized and replaced with a horrifying outsider’s view. It became clear to me that I needed to produce photographs from the inside in order to create a counterbalance to the dishonest images that were being produced.
Dr. King believed in the fullness of humanity for all people. He taught by example. He showed that it is possible to confront negative stereotypes with positive understanding. From my analysis of the visual media, I have discovered that three elements are lacking when people of color are depicted – decency, dignity, and virtuous character. Producing images that show the fullness of our humanity has become my mission with the camera.