INTERVIEW WITH CHESTER HIGGINS, JR.
"I'm a cultural anthropologist with a camera," said Chester Higgins Jr., as he sat back in his back porch on a warmer than usual, October afternoon. The distinguished photographer contentedly looked around the quiet neighborhood where he makes his home in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn.
"I guess I decided in college that instead of being a sociologist having to write papers all the time, I'd much rather collect my information through visuals."
And he has, for the past 30 years. As a college student in the 60's, Higgins started making portraits of his professors to make ends meet, and from there expanded his hobby into a successful career. He explains his choice of expression,
"You know when you write something it's limited to the language that you write it in, whereas photographs, are not limited to English speakers, French speakers, Luciphone speakers, Amharic speakers…everyone knows what a photograph is saying."
Higgins has published five books; namely Black Women, Drums of Life, Some Time Ago, Feeling the Spirit, and Elder Grace. He currently works for The New York Times.
Higgins: Maybe I'm lazy to some extent, but I feel that when you write stuff
you never really get it right. Every time you look at it, there is something
else to do. My wife, Betsy Kissam, has that problem, because she's a writer.
You write something today, think you've got it right; and then a few days later
you think of something a else so you go back to it again, sometimes you have
to tear it all up and start over. At times you can get away with just a little
nip and tuck; other times you have to destroy the whole thing. So, the thought
process that works best for me is the photograph, because while I’m dealing
with how and what I’m experiencing, I must translate this feeling into
Are you a picky photographer?
Higgins: Yes you have to be. You see, to be a photographer you have to be competitive with other imagery so that people will pay attention. People don't necessarily have to pay attention to your pictures, unless there is something in it that pulls their mind over to make them notice. Most of the things we look at each and every day hardly get a second thought, so the challenge is, what can I do with my imagery to make others want to notice?
Was it hard coming up in your profession?
Higgins: Yes well it's always hard. Coming up or arriving is constant. It depends what you call "coming up". My wife tells me that every time I reach one barrier, I become unhappy, because then I'm concerned about the next barrier. I have to agree with her.
I guess the first barrier any photographer has is how to be taken seriously. Whether they decide to go on the publishing route, or the art and museum route. How do you find a way to be taken seriously by the other people who are already out there? Whether they are the creators, or whether they are the handlers of the creators (such as curators of the museums, reps, or collectors on the art side). How does one create a presence that either way you go, you are taken seriously by the industry? That is a challenge all creative people constantly struggle with.
What sort of portraits do you do?
Higgins: I make interior portraits. Some of my pictures are of people who may be in positions of power, money or literary people. Postcards of some of my portraits of people like Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, Alex Haley. These portraits are of people who are not so worried about how they look, but rather, the seriousness of what they're actually doing.
You have a picture Haile Selassie in your book Feeling The Spirit. When did you take it?
Higgins: I made this portrait of His Majesty in 1973, two years before his death. This was made at the 10th OAU meeting that convened in Addis Ababa. Before this meeting of African leaders, I had no knowledge of Haile Selassie. I went to that meeting because I really wanted to see what African heads of states look like. I knew what American heads of state looked like, and I'd seen pictures of the European ones, but I'd never seen African heads of states and I wanted to see for myself what they looked like. Because of the nature of this meeting, there would be a whole congregation of them.
This was your first trip to Ethiopia?
Higgins: Yes. I went back in 1975. After that I stayed away until after the Mengistu reign had passed. And I'll probably go next year for Timket.
In your book Feeling The Spirit, I noticed that you had arranged the pictures in such a way that they are not organized by their geography, but instead spread out, so that a picture of a woman in Ethiopia will be followed by a man somewhere in Haiti. What was your reasoning behind this?
Higgins: We African people have different degrees of self-hate. We embrace self-hate as the sub-function of being oppressed in situations like the USA and South Africa. We have self-hate that comes out of our own competitions between different groups on the Continent. We have all these divisions; whether these divisions are continental divisions by different nations or whether they are color divisions, I wanted to eliminate them and get rid of the borders by sticking different places and parts of the Diaspora right next to each other. We are all different people in similar situations, and I wanted to do away the borders. I acknowledged the borders by telling you where the picture was from, but at the same time I obliterated them so that you could be a citizen of all these places.
Where have you been in Africa?
Higgins: Well I guess I've been in Africa about 15 times. In the North, I've been to Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. In the south; Namibia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Niger. I think that's it.
Why was it important for you to travel to Africa?
Higgins: In this country we grew up seeing Africa through the eyes of a negative reinforcing media, and what we consumed was mostly racist propaganda. I was surprised when I arrived there that many white people lived in Africa, and had big homes, living the good life with servants. Growing up in the US, we had always heard that Africa was primitive, something that if you were an African American you had to be completely embarrassed of, and completely alienated from. Here in America, we were encouraged to be alienated from our 'Africaness', so I wanted find out for myself what was the truth of Africa and African people. There was a nagging fear that I would have found out that all the propaganda I had heard was true — I would have been shocked and hurt. I took the chance that I would find something that I had never imagined. I found that I had a lot in common with African people, despite of different cultures, languages and different attitudes about life. One of the most intriguing things I found about being in Africa, coming out of a culture where I was a minority, how refreshing it was that, in Africa, for once in my life I was in the majority. For the first time in my life, I reflected 'normalcy', being a member of the majority. At once, I was able to shed this feeling of otherness that minorities often feel in majority cultures.
How do you cope with language differences?
Higgins: I try to learn just enough to be human. As we go along, if we say anything to people, we usually greet them, we acknowledge their space, ask them how they are, etc. I learn enough to acknowledge their space and humanness. I don't know enough to reason with them in their language, so I usually hire someone to be what I call, a translator, guide and facilitator. And we hit the road. Meanwhile, in the course of following my shooting schedule, I'm also very open to whatever may happen along the route.
Have you had any off the wall experiences in any of these places that you've traveled?
Higgins: Well it depends on what you call off the wall. I've had experiences in all of these places. For example, I didn't realize how many people had problems with Selassie when I first saw him. But I must say seeing Selassie for the first time and not knowing who he was, I was attracted to something about him. Selassie had a certain aura to him that I have not found in anyone else. And I'll tell you what I mean. I was on the tarmac at Addis Airport and heads of State were coming in. And a group of about four tall men start walking down towards the plane. But there was something strange; there was like an echo coming out from inside that group. And it wasn't the four big men. It was something in between them. So when they stopped and Selassie moved forward and I saw him for my first time, I thought it was quite odd. That here was the smallest guy among them who had this echo reverberation effect to him, and they didn't. They were all bigger than him. And that really taught me something about presence and what an aura could feel like. I mean Selassie had this aura about him, that suggested he was with us yet somewhere far beyond all of us. Somehow the whole place, even the air, became his. I asked myself, what is this? For the first time in my life, I dropped the camera from my eyes, and just took it all in deeply, sifting and burning this moment, this view into my consciousness. I wondered, is this something that all emperors and big guys have? So then I started taking note. The Pope came to America, so I was like, well, lets look at the Pope, maybe he's got this. He didn't have it. At the UN, Presidents, kings and the Shah came in. They didn't have it either. I came to the realization that there is something really different and unique about Selassie.
When I went back home and discussing my trip with my friend Joel Motley, I told him, "I saw this guy with an incredible aura," and he said "What's his name?", "Emperor Selassie I, I said". And he said " Well there are a lot of people who think that he is a very special ruler, even a Christ figure…have you ever heard of Rastafarians?" I said "No, who are they?" He said "Bob Marley?" I said, "No, who's he?". (Laughing) "Well" he said, "there's this music called reggae and they believe that Selassie is a Christ." So I decided to go out and get some of this music. Later, I thought to myself, this Rasta thing is arresting, it's incredible. And then I said, well you know, let me go to Jamaica, because I wanted to see these western born African people who had lived their lives under oppression, and who dare to believe that their Saviour could look like them. So I went to Jamaica to seek these people out.
I am not Rasta. But I have warm feelings about the Selassie I was saw and photographed for that one week in Addis. I sought out and started making a lot of Ethiopian friends because of him. This made me realize that a lot of the Ethiopians in New York didn't even like Selassie. During spring break Ethiopian professors from around the country would come to New York for the Conference on the Horn of Africa held at City College where they were very critical of Selassie and advocated his overthrow. These same students were the people that the DERG essentially took advantage of to gain power, and then turned around and started killing them off. I began to learn the difference between Ethiopians who were critical of Selassie and his policies and those who still supported him, in addition to the Eritreans who hated him, refused kneel down to him and took up arms against him.