In 1967 you discovered the magical power of photography while an undergrad at Tuskegee University. Please elaborate on that experience and introduce the readers to the great photographer who made that discovery possible.
I spent my formative years attracted to the power of the written word as the means of sharing information; at Tuskegee University I began to appreciate the expanding role and usage of various media to communicate. For me, it all came together when I discovered the works of P. H. Polk. His work demonstrated how sympathetic visuals could have an advantage over language. I realized that photography could be the universal language of expression.
Under Mr. Polk’s guidance, you learned how to take the camera and become a hunter of images. Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration photographer, helped you build a visual vocabulary and taught you how to use it. Romare Bearden taught you how to delineate space and find ceremony in living. Gordon Parks led you to understand the value of breadth in creativity. Cornell Capa led you to discover that your photographic vision was worldwide. What lessons do you leave behind for those who would follow your lead?
Depending on the agenda of the searcher, many lessons are to be found in my work and example. One of the things that I hope will shine through is my vision of myself and of the world in which we live. We all are a function of our histories, our struggles, our failures and our successes. With the camera, I’ve always looked for the best examples of people-hood. I am most attracted to worthiness of character, people whom I like to be around and showcase as examples. With my photographs, I began showing those I held most dear in my hometown, my neighbors, and eventually those in the state, in the country, on far-away continents and in the world.
It is said that when you are making photographs of a person, you are seeking to find a signature of the spirit. Each person has a unique spirit and thus a unique signature. What do you do to coax that unique signature out so you can reveal the interior presence?
My art is an expression of my soul that gives visual definition to an experience. I use light and the existence of the Spirit, which energize and inform everything they touch, to give voice to the essence of appearance.
I believe people can influence their personalities, not their spirits. Take a cup of coffee, the container is the outside covering – what you see first – much like a personality. The coffee, the spice within, is much like the spirit. We exist with the outer covering bombarded by experiences of the real and artificial worlds. The real world of nature we hardly pay attention to today, we take it for granted. For various reasons, we are obsessed with the artificial world. I believe that it is our relationship to this artificial world that informs our personality.
For me, the personality offers just a facade and does not go deep enough for what I find most interesting. What I am looking for is the universal spirit that precedes the personality and is host to our lives; it operates in its own parallel existence.
As a child of Alabama, of the South, of segregation and racism, you have had to reconcile, one way or another, with that history. What role has it played in your work as an artist?
Wrestling with issues of memory, place and identity, I see my life as a narrative and my photography as its expression. My art gives visual voice to my personal and collective memories.
In my first two books Black Woman and Drums of Life, I pull heavily from my Southern roots balanced with the urbanity of New York City. In my memoir Echo of the Spirit, many of the essays address my experiences growing up in the South of the 50s and 60s.
Everyone’s life is made up of personal and public experiences. Within my family and among fellow African-Americans of my youth, I benefited from a loving, caring and instructive environment that helped me overcome the segregation, hatred and racism around us. My family and extended family created an island of harmony that served as a buffer, protecting me from the full effect.
Even so, the intersection between my black world and the larger white world was fraught with danger. Segregation, hatred and racism are collective tools of abuse that can become normalized. If you embrace the hate of the hater, you truly become its victim. I reject being a victim.
In my youth, I saw images in the local media that demonized people of color. Such a skewed view negated the much broader reality of the decency, dignity and wholesome virtue of the people I loved and spent time with. I decided to record the images that others had proven that they could not see. This became my mission, to show things beyond the radar of the contemporary mainstream photographers – to provide an insider’s perspective. I set out to produce a collection of images that are more representative of people of color.
Your calling to Africa has roots that extend back into your childhood. It precedes your life as a photographer. Describe the history of that calling, how you answered it and how your work with a camera has enhanced it.
In my family, there is a story about the arrival in the 1850s of an enslaved African youth from West Africa that goes back five generations. One of my aunts who took care of him in his advanced age remembered that whenever he would fish in Mobile Bay he would look out over the water and say, “I wish I could swim back home.”
Perhaps his spirit in my blood is one of the reasons that I have embraced the Africanness in me and why I felt so compelled at the young age of 25 to make my first trip to West Africa. Since then, with the exception of four years, I have traveled yearly to many different parts of Africa.
Through me, my ancestor has returned to Africa. He came here by water and I went back by air. With my camera, I’ve embraced my Continental African cousins, delighting in our similarities as well as appreciating what makes us uniquely different. In 1994, after 26 years of visits, I produced the book Feeling the Spirit, which shows and pays homage to the world family of African people.
The more I interacted with African people I became fascinated by what I learned of the long history of Continental Africans, preceding colonization and dispossession. This past September my book, Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, was published by the American University Cairo Press. In its 400 pages, a team of Egyptologists reveals the heretofore unknown story of Nubia, the bridge culture that became the corridor between Egypt, Ethiopia and inner Africa during ancient times. In my latest book project, titled Before Genesis, I have been photographing monuments and other antiquity sites along the River Nile, from the 6,000 foot-high mountains of Kush (modern-day Ethiopia) through Nubia (Sudan) down to the ancient Land of Kemet (Egypt). When finished, this book will narrate the story of the African beginnings of spirituality, antecedents of the Biblical world.
You are drawn particularly to Ethiopia and have been traveling there since 1973. Time and time again, you return to that country. You are leaving Saturday for another trip. What is it about Ethiopia that so compels you?
Throughout Ethiopia’s history, due to the great skills of its generals and armies, the country has never been conquered by an outside force. It is the only land in all Africa that was never colonized. When the Italian Army invaded in 1895 with 25,000 troops, the Italians were met by the Ethiopian Army under the command of Emperor Menelik the Second; at the decisive Battle of Adwa on 01 March 1896, all the Italians were killed. Ethiopians are an extremely proud people; their culture has remained intact and they have never lost the ability to govern themselves and enjoy the land of their most ancient ancestors.
Ethiopia’s political history goes back more than 5,000 years; during the Pharoanic period of Egypt, it was already a serious regional power. According to the latest archaeological discoveries, the first people arose in Ethiopia. The fossilized skeleton of the earliest human, the one we call Lucy and the Ethiopians call Dinqinesh, was found in the Afar region of Ethiopia; she lived 3.2 million years ago.
The word Ethiopia appears in the King James version of the Bible 45 times. The story of Queen Makeda’s, Empress of Aksum, known more commonly as the Queen of Sheba, royal visit to King Solomon is in I Kings Chapter 10. This story continues in the Ethiopian Royal Histories, the Kebre Negast; the Queen returned to Aksum pregnant and gave her baby a name meaning “wise or insightful one.” When this child became an adult, he traveled from Aksum to visit his father, King Solomon. After a few years at Solomon’s court, the Prince returned home to his mother with the Ark of the Covenant. Today, according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ark is housed in a well-guarded building called the Treasury in the sacred precinct at Aksum.
In this ancient royal city, you can walk among several thousand-year-old stone ruins of tombs, obelisks, palace foundations, royal thrones – all remnants of past glories. During the empire’s heyday, Aksumite captains ruled trade on the Indian Ocean, the empire expanded across the Red Sea to include parts of Arabia, and merchants controlled the trade of inner African goods that went down the Nile River into Nubia and Egypt.
From my research reading the Greek historian, Herodutus, the first people to develop religious beliefs were the ancient Ethiopians who worshiped a monotheistic sky God. This traditional belief system is still practiced in some parts of modern-day Ethiopia by the Oromo people, who identify their sky god as Waka. The later Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, wrote that the Ethiopians sent colonists into Egypt, likely following the Nile River downhill into Nubia. I have photographed monuments, temples and tombs along the Nile River in Sudan that present for me remnants of this early belief system as it migrated along the river.
Ethiopia is indeed a unique and special country. Since 1973 when I first visited, I continue to research and photograph evidence of the country’s history, culture and religions.
In what way(s) was Emperor Haile Selassie an inspiration to you?
In my memoir Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey, I write about my first sighting of His Majesty Haile Selassie. Politically, I found him to be a most impressive figure. He is a defining force in the history of Ethiopia and the liberation of Africa. He is the 225th direct descendant of a dynasty that traced its origins back to the Empress of Aksum, Queen Makeda, and King Solomon.
What impressed me most was his personal aura – he exulted a calm interior presence, much like a spirit in the now, while simultaneously seeming to exist somewhere else with higher beings. I took special note of how he held his hands in a way that spiritually centered him. To me that action symbolized how the maintenance of his calm came from constantly digging deep within himself to purge all anxieties that might take hold of his soul.
I was so impressed with this unique quality that I wondered if any other heads of state had it. Years later when I became a staff photographer for The New York Times, I sought out assignments covering meetings at the United Nation where I could see for myself if anyone else had this quality. I looked at many, many leaders, but I found none who had that unique quality of self and spirit that His Majesty Haile Selassie possessed.
Haile Selassie inspired me to dig deep within myself to see and perceive more clearly the world about me. To this day, at times following his example I try to dig deep within myself to purge anxieties and emotional debris, to open my mind so that my vision can become clearer.
We all carry elements from our past into the present and those elements also lead us into the future. What elements from your past most influence who you are as a creative human?
We all stand on the shoulders of those who have faith in us. Any achievement in life comes from a combination of preparation, discipline, vision, focus and capable allies. None of us can walk the road of success alone; we all need help. Every success I have has come from being able to listen and accept guidance from many people.
I was blessed with a mother (of course at the time I didn’t feel this way) who taught me good study habits, insisted on reviewing all my homework before I could play with my friends or watch television, responded immediately to correct any behavioral problem and provided me with books whose pages allowed me to travel the world.
I am thankful to my grandfather Warren Smith, who helped me appreciate the parallel world of the spirit and become comfortable with it. My great-uncle, March Fourth McGowan, whom I loved as much if not more than my parents, would take me hunting and fishing; in conversations with his age group, I would overhear discussions of their life experiences. All their conversations taught me what it means to be a person of character. I acquired “a second father” in my mother’s friend, Mr. Bernest Brooks, who taught me how to engage in the political life of the world.
Finally, at Tuskegee University a lecturer in conflict resolution, Michael Ryder, brought it all together one night when I complained about the negative portrayal of my people in the visual media. He began telling me about a father’s bedtime story to his son concerning a fight between a lion and a man in which the man wins. One night, the son asks his father, “Why doesn’t the lion win? After all, the man invaded the home of the lion, and the lion is bigger and fiercer.” “The lion will win,” answered the father, “when he writes the story.” At that moment, I realized that excellence in photography was required of me if I wanted to have an impact on the visual landscape as it relates to people of color.
You are a man of many words and write contemplatively and prolifically. How does your writing enhance your photography? How does your photography enhance your writing?
Both expressions – the visual and the written – are forms of journals. For me, one reason to keep a journal is to clear the deck of what happened, to sort it out in review. Another reason is that by the very act of committing to paper, you are creating the evidence that it actually happened. Since life, existence itself, is constantly changing much like a fleeting mirage, if there is no record of the moment, did it actually happen?
Wrestling with issues of memory, place and identity, I see my life as a narrative and my photography as its expression. My art gives visual voice to my personal and collective memories. I am not the writer, I am just a person full of certain ideas with the desire to communicate on many different levels. My brilliant and lovely wife, Betsy Kissam, is the writer. She edits my thoughts and helps turn them into literature worthy of my cognitive renderings. Together, we work the voice in my head and massage the words into coherent sentences.
Please tell us about your great-aunt Shugg and her influence on your early photographic career. Do you share her recipe for blackberry pie?
It is because of my love for my great-aunt Shugg Lampley and her brother, my great-uncle March Fourth McGowan, that I first picked up the camera. When I saw the powerful portraits that P. H. Polk of Tuskegee Institute made of local people during the Depression, they reminded me of my relatives. They made me think how similar in character my aunt and uncle were to these people, and the realization came to me that I had never seen a photograph of my relatives. I wanted them to have a photograph of themselves. But I had a problem. On a student budget, I couldn’t afford to hire Mr. P. H. Polk to travel 100 miles to photograph them. So, I convinced him to teach me how to use the camera. A year later, after Mr. Polk’s training and with my own camera, I went home to make their portraits.
Ah, to eat her blackberry pie cooked in a wood-burning stove again. It was so juicy, warm and melted in your mouth. I wish I had made photographs of her while she was cooking. Unfortunately I don’t have her recipe.
Chester Higgins, Jr. is represented by Arnika Dawkins Gallery Atlanta
Chester Higgins, Jr., born in 1946 in Kentucky, was raised in Alabama and educated at Tuskegee University, where he discovered the photographs of P.H. Polk, acclaimed for his work with Dr. George Washington Carver. Under Polk’s tutelage, and using Polk’s camera, Higgins learned to make photographs in his own unique style, referred to as signatures of the spirit.
Following graduation from Tuskegee, Higgins went to work as a staff photographer at The New York Times, where he continues to work. When free to travel, Higgins goes to Africa and particularly to Ethiopia. He has made that trip time and time again and was departing for another journey shortly after this interview.
A prolific writer, Higgins has authored several books: Black Woman, Drums of Life, Some Time Ago: A Historical Portrait of Black America (1850–1950), Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa, Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging, and his memoir Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey. His most recent book is Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile.
Chester Higgins: Unseen Spirit opened at the Arnika Dawkins Gallery in Atlanta on October 4 and continues there until November 29.