Spoken Images: A Perspective from Chester Higgins Jr

Chester Higgns Jr.

When you take a glance at Chester Higgins Jr.’s career, it becomes clear how he does what he does with authority and ease. As he conducted a presentation on his new collaborative photographic book  Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile at The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, NY, Higgins’ explained the anthropological and historical background of his images with fluid passion and depth. His work as a staff photographer for The New York Times for nearly three decades has led to coveted and prestigious fellowships, as well as numerous gallery exhibitions across the globe.

It was Higgins’ experience growing up in Alabama in the 1960’s and his participation in a civil rights protest march from Tuskegee to the state’s capital Montgomery that defined his mission. Poring over those disparaging images taken by photographers and the racially biased reporting of that day’s march invoked his aspiration to document the civil rights movement from his perspective “The image of us, we were not portrayed as American citizens, petitioning the government. The photographers and the slant of the story rather portrayed us essentially as thugs or hooligans and it for the first time made me realize the power of the camera. Because my interest with the camera was to make messages of the heart, and now I began to realize how other people saw us. So I thought…if I can make photographs from the inside showing people as we are… maybe that can make a difference. So that’s what I tried to do, and that became my role then and in the civil rights movement to document it.”[1] This aspiration to provide a more authentic narrative and reportage would extend well beyond the civil rights movement and African Americans to encompass the African diaspora and the continent.

I had the opportunity to ask Higgins’ a few questions about his art and his mission:

AW. With an impressive body of work under your belt, how would you describe your contributions to the African Diaspora?

CH. As an artist, as an African centric person, my desire is to highlight those things that need to be appreciated and respected in the world African experience — both ancient and contemporary. My work is about the exploration of African identity, highlighting the elements of decency, dignity and virtuous character.

AW. How does this latest book differ from all of your previous publications?

CH. In the book, Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the River Nile, my work illustrates the essays of several Egyptologists concerning this empire that bridged ancient Axum and Kemet. But like all my books, these images provide the visual lens by which to view the drama of this ancient culture. As in the first chapter, “Most Ancient Place” of my book, Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa, my photographs are of things that remain along the River Nile from a people who no longer exist. What has remained in stone — the architecture, the concept of time and divinity, the messages to God from these ancient people — speaks to their statecraft and religion, elements that have been absorbed into today’s culture.

AW. Your work largely centers on people of African descent, history, politics and art. What is the attraction? What has drawn you to these subjects?

CH. The portrait of me must reflect the complexity of my people. In my work, I look for the many reflections of myself as seen in the faces and eyes of those of us of African descent. In my own imagery I show the multi-dimensions of our identity over time and space. Africa is the land where God planted the black people. For western-born Africans, I say that we are Africans not because we are born in Africa but because Africa is born in us. My mission is to enable Continental Africans and Diasporan Africans to come to appreciate each other in the fullness of our collective selves for the future well-being of the world African family.

For one to appreciate Higgins’ work there is what many would call his signature image: a photo titled ‘Moslem woman,’ which can be found under the platinum gallery on his website. In this image, the woman’s eyes are dark yet translucent and piercing. The pearly white hijab cascades gently over her head and over her nose, while only the eyes and minimal skin are revealed. The contrast between white hijab and dark skin and eyes are striking, yet it flows quite naturally. This is what Chester Higgins Jr is able to capture with his camera. “The eye is the most sacred thing, the eye reveals the soul,” says Higgins, “I would say that part of my approach when I am looking at eyes I see myself as a diver. You know, the eye is much like a pool and your diving off into the eye, into the soul, into the spirit. Layers and layers you get textures and textures of the person the moment the place.”[2] Chester Higgins’ Jr exhibits an air of humility and conviction as he articulates his mentors like P.H. Polk, Gordon Parks, Romare Bearden, Cornell Capa, Arthur Rothstein; but when you observe his body of work, you then realize that he is a giant upon whose shoulders many photographers nationally and internationally stand. His images take you on a journey that transverse the African diaspora to speak to the core of the collective. 

[1] Chester Higgins JR. (2011). ‘My Soul Flies Home to Africa’ Interview with Brian Lehrer. Available: http://photographs.chesterhiggins.com/index-slides.html?gallery=Profile%20Videos&folio=Portfolio. Last accessed 16th Jan 2013.

[2] Ibid.

Chester Higgins JR -photo by: Sanviki Chapman – (C) All Rights Reserved