AMERICANA
Anno 1 - N. 4
Aprile 1997


BLACK RENAISSANCE
IN SEARCH OF A PEOPLE

An Interview with Chester Higgins
by Romano Giachetti (translated from the Italian)

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.
"By accident. From New Brockton, the little Alabama village where I was born, I went to Alabama’s Tuskegee University and enrolled in the School of Business Management. We were publishing a small newspaper and I was assigned to find photographs. I had heard about a photographer, P.H.Polk, and went to find him. Weeks later, when I returned, the photographs weren’t ready, but Polk told me to wait: he’d develop them in short order. It was the first time I had ever seen a strip of celluloid. To me it seemed like a miracle. Polk explained the process, but, still, I left thinking it miraculous."

How did you think photographs were made?
"I had no idea. The next time, I asked Polk how I could make photographs of some of my relatives. I didn’t dare ask him to make the photographs because they lived far away and I didn’t have the money to hire him. But I was a stubborn youth when something got into my head… Things ended up with Polk lending me his camera, telling me, ‘try,’ and I tried. When I returned, he told me my photographs were ‘disgusting’. He offered me some details about lighting and composition, but I understood nothing."

Did you return home to photograph your relatives?
"No. I waited and practiced my skills until I would be ready. At night I dreamt of their faces. They were too beautiful. I succeeded, however, in saving up one hundred dollars, bought a used camera, made other photographs, then returned to Polk and asked him how much an important camera like his would cost that would shoot beautiful images. Polk admonished me not to talk nonsense. ‘The camera you have is fine. It is the eye that shoots the photographs. You have a Praktika camera and it will be faithful to you.’ When I did return to New Brockton, the first photograph I made was that of my Great-aunt, Shugg Lampley. It’s in my show, Feeling the Spirit."

Had you already learned everything?
"I had learned nothing. After university I went to New York, determined to make my way, but didn’t know how. One day, I went to the editorial offices of the weekly, Look, asking them to look at a photograph and then showed my portfolio. I said, ‘I’m not looking for work. Just tell me what I’m doing wrong.’ While one person was looking at my photographs another appeared, gave a quick look and left, saying to his colleague, ‘Send him to me when you’re finished.’ I went and told him the same thing, ‘I’m not looking for work.’ He very kindly gave me a load of criticism but urged me to continue."

Who was he?
"Hold on… I began going to him every week. Once he told me to go to the Museum of Modern Art and look carefully at the impressionist paintings. I
went and I looked. Then I asked him, ‘Why should I study oil paintings?’ My teacher (by now I considered him my teacher) led me to think about the composition in these paintings. Then he sent me to the MOMA photography collection, telling me, ‘Look at the works of the great photographers. Go,
examine and admire.’ At a certain point I saw a name I recognized: Arthur Rothstein. I asked if perchance… then, like a blow to my head, it hit me: the man at Look who was teaching me was Rothstein, one of the greatest living photographers!"

You were lucky. Or perhaps it was due to your youthful innocence— your first weapon.
"I was tenacious. Rothstein introduced me to Cornell Capa who introduced me to Gordon Parks. With their help I discovered how to develop my visual skills. But the idea that was growing in my head was mine. I wanted to document my people."

Where did that idea come from?
"Let’s take a step back and return to Alabama. In college I had also studied sociology and, without really knowing it well, I had begun to understand the subjection of my people. It was in the negative images of African-Americans that the media published everywhere. But those images were false! My family, my friends — no one was like the images the white photographers depicted. Among us there was much more dignity, much more decorum.

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?
"In fear. Fear that the others, the different ones, will take away what you have."

But how come the whites don’t have it in for the Chinese or the Indians. Aren’t they also different?
"We were enslaved. Perhaps, you can crush the enslaved because you think they will never rebel."

Do you think your photographs are a form of rebellion against white Americans?
"No. The problem my people face is not limited to the United States. It’s a world-wide problem that concerns all nations. Bigotry exists in all countries.
In Italy—the northern Italians against the southern Italians. Note Mussolini against the Abyssinians. Every nation has its bigotry, more or less hidden. But I don’t want to appear to have undertaken my odyssey to combat bigotry. It’s not that. I travel the continents to affirm the identity of the people with black skin."

It doesn’t make any difference to you, if you’re dealing with people in Ghana, or Alabama or Brooklyn?
"None. The reason I came to New York… Look, if perhaps if I had remained in Alabama I could very well have portrayed the beauty and dignity of my people. But I knew the media were in New York, that’s why I came here. It’s here that public opinion is formed and I wanted to be on the national stage where the debate is developed. Even today, if there’s something to say, I go out, make photographs, speak with the people, participate."

At a certain moment, however, you felt the need to leave the confines of New York, even America.
"That’s true. In 1969 I wanted to go to Africa. I wasn’t able to, but I went two years later."

What were your impressions?
"The strongest impression was to find myself in a place where I was no longer a member of the minority. It was like suddenly feeling transformed.
Of course, I made thousands of photographs, but still didn’t know where I was heading

When did you understand?
"The African Diaspora is the most colossal story of the human species. I did not understand it immediately; it came to me little by little. My people are African, they belong to the African continent, to Africa — but we are dispersed worldwide. There were some terrible events in this dispossession and dispersal, yet the African character has not been lost. I set about discovering that character, capturing and celebrating it in every continent."

After the publication of books like Black Woman and Drums of Life, you dedicated yourself to the black population in America.
"Yes. With Orde Coombs, who wrote the text, we wanted to document the story of our people from 1850. From that, another book was born, Some Time Ago. By then I had returned to Africa many times (seventeen, to today) and I had found full-time employment at the New York Times where I continue to work. At the Times I work eight hours a day as a staff photographer, but I have the 16 remaining hours for my projects. It’s essential to be clear about goals. It was Cornell Capa who made me understand the importance of a point of departure. I was using the word ‘Diaspora’ which everyone associates with the Jewish people and Capa wanted justification for applying it to my people. Thus I went looking for signs of the dispersion, of forced African exodus."

How long did it take to collect the images for Feeling the Spirit?
"From the late-sixties, when I shot the photograph of my Great-aunt Shugg, to a few years ago. More than thirty years passed, a little everywhere—America, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. I looked for what was universal and what was unique in each culture. In the Caribbean I found almost the same rites I found on the continent. It was a sensational discovery, as if, in that moment, one sees the African population all together. My work was highly emotional for me."

Do you agree that today we can speak of Black Renaissance in America?
"Yes. There are many signs. Renaissances have a way of shifting in time."

What projects do you have now?
"The show, Feeling the Spirit, continues to circulate in America. I would like to take it to other nations: in Europe, for example. But as I look ahead, I’m focusing on a project that will take me to central Egypt. I’ve been studying the ancient Egyptian culture, but I have yet to discover point of view. However, it will happen; the moment will come."

In your books, there are already many photographs shot in Egypt.
"It’s a first taste, just a sampling, I understand that the Egyptians require a major concentration."

Why?"The dispossession and dispersion of the African people throughout the centuries has caused the loss of their glorious past. Lately, we have come to know that Africans are the heirs of the ancient Egyptian civilization, which has given the world writing, the calendar, astronomy, science, mathematics, and the very first theological texts, such as "The Book of Coming Forth", found in the tombs of the pharaohs. Today we are rediscovering our history, be it written or oral. It is an enormous undertaking."

You seem to attribute little significance to nationality, which, in some measure, must have had some affect on your development.
"Today, Africans live in many different countries of the trans-Atlantic and trans-Indian area. Globally, we are a diverse population. But, even though we are separated by geography, by national borders and by language, we remain similar in many ways that unite us. Different, yes, but to a large extent the same."


What unites you in a particular way?
"I would say the spirit. The African spirit of my people has never been extinguished. Today we passionately rediscover it and rediscover our traditions. Yes, the spirit has never shone with so brilliant a light. Wherever we find each other, the problems we confront are practically the same, as are the aspirations we have."


Do you feel that photography is your way to make a contribution?
"Exactly. My photographs show the dispersion and the similarities among all African people. My work allows me to make art. And art humanizes a society."

 

 
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