Chester Higgins Jr.
RELAYING HIS VISUAL MESSAGE
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
As a student, I became involved in the Civil Rights movement, took part in some of the marches to Montgomery against George Wallace. I was taken back by the fact that when we’d come back from these marches, the images that were shown on TV and in the newspaper demonized us, criminalized us. Knowing that I was part of this and seeing how it was portrayed made me very angry.
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
My major at Tuskegee was business management. I learned how to do projections, how to develop a business plan, how to follow it and work with it. It helped me to develop an attitude about seeing the work tat I do as a business. In the beginning, for me, the art came second, the business came first. So many of the people in the arts can handle the creative end of things, but they never have an understanding of business.
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.
The Look job was Jesse Jackson, who had just organized Operation Push in Chicago. I traveled a week around the country from New York to California to Chicago, documenting Jackson for a piece written by Ernest Dunbar, the senior editor. The results — a five page spread. It was my first and only piece to be published for Look. It got published just before the magazine folder in October 1971.
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
In 1975, on one of my trips to the African continent, I’d done a photographic essay on the drought in the Sahel area of the Sahara Desert. Nobody here in this country was concerned or aware of what a big problem it had become. But it was a problem that was so big that managing it was beyond the ability of small relief agencies. The problem needed our government support and participation.
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."
I had no idea that Sy Peck’s assistant, Rose Newman, was Abe Rosenthal’s sister. I didn’t even know who Abe Rosenthal (managing editor of The Times) was until after my interview.
In the beginning, there were problems with my immediate boss, the picture editor, Dane Bath, because I was hired over his head by Abe Rosenthal. He let me know that it was not his decision. During the six-month trial period for new staff, he three all kinds of difficult assignments at me. New staff, for instance, always gets the night assignments, which means you have to push all of your film. And you become aware of your editor’s attitude. But you just do your job, don’t give your enemy any ammunition to shoot you with.
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.
When I asked him for some protection, he handed me what looked like a beat-up gas mask from World War I. I explained that I hadn’t fully recovered from the flu; in fact my whole family had caught it from me. Could he get someone else?
He said, "Are you turning down an assignment?"
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.
THE SELF-PUBLISHING QUEST
My own work doesn’t interfere with the work at The Times. They want to know when something is published if you did it on your own time. According to our conflict of interest policy the editors must be notified about your personal work that may become a book. I follow this policy to make sure that there are no problems. No photographs or stories in Feeling the Spirit evolved out of anything I’ve done at The Times.
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.
In 1976, the USIA (united States Information Service) took my first two books and opened an exhibition of the pictures in Cameroon, Africa. The USIA is part of the State Department, but is also an agency for the CIA. The exhibition was so popular that it was eventually sent around the world, to all the USIA offices.
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
When I first began my field trips to Africa, since I only spoke a little French, I began to learn how to maneuver in French-speaking countries. But there were also German-, Portuguese-, Spanish-, and Italian-speaking countries, not to mention literally, hundreds of local languages and dialects. As a photographer, it became an interesting challenge. If I’m dealing in the universal language of human behavior, I should be able to make strong pictures in any culture, language notwithstanding.
In the ‘70s, we had very little information about African countries that told us much about the people. Most information was about business or natural resources or the animals. Nearly all the rest through the media, the images of the people, were essentially "niggerisms." Obviously, the ones who rose above that were the heads of state, but a picture never lies about the photographer who makes it. Even in photographs of heads of state you could generally see a condescending attitude because of the photographers’ socialization.
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
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.
ADAPTING TO HIS SURROUNDINGS
When you have a camera, people can get very paranoid. When I want to document events and ceremonies, especially religious ceremonies — something that is private and personal — I run the risk of disrupting their supplications to their God. If I do that, I’m in serious trouble.
A good deal of my research before I make any field trip is done in rare books stores. Most regular book stores don’t carry the kind of books I need. U also try to get local newspaper subscription from the country I’m planning on visiting so I can see the people, see if any of the names that pop up can be helpful to me.
In addition, I try to make contacts in tat country with historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and so forth. I ask them if at any of their meetings around the world they have made friends or have contacts in this area who might be helpful to me as a facilitator.
Whatever name they give me I contact and see if I can hire them as an on-location facilitator/interpreter/guide for me. Then, when I arrive, the facilitator has already hired a car and driver and made all of the necessary arrangements. That’s my staff.
The first thing I do in a country is to go to various congregations and groups and talk to them, "I’m here to seek your help, to document your lives. People where I come from don’t know that you exist, don’t know what you do, don’t know the intensity of your faith. I want to bring back to other people what I have discovered."
To be able to get that access, it comes down to the vibrations between them and me. They don’t care that I work for The New York Times, they don’t care that I come from a place so far away and tat it costs me a lot of money to get to their country, they don’t care how many months I’ve studied. If the vibes from me to them say the spirits are okay, its okay. If the vibes say no, that’s it. No access.
I understand that. Every time I get ready to leave on a field trip, I’m caught by a pang of fear because I realize that no matter how well I’m prepared for this, wherever I go these people can reject me. It’s not my agenda; I’m at their mercy. They’re not dumb. We all come with a grain. They’re going to sift me. I must surrender control; control cannot be an issue. I can simply ask, simply be, but I have no power.
It’s more than asking people if you can do something. I must also give them the right to say no. When my son and daughter tried to manipulate me as they were growing up, tried to get me to agree with tem, I would say, "You are trying either to take away my right to say no or to take advantage of my ignorance. Both of these things I am aware of and both of these things I empower people with; they have the right to say no or to take advantage of my ignorance, but they also have the right not to be ignorant of my motives."
I reason with the people. They vibe me, they ask me questions, and I try to reason with them. I want to be a friend who happens to have a camera, not a photographer. I’m there to live with the people, to learn about them, to enjoy them and occasionally make a photograph.
MAKING PALS WITH POLAROIDS
After the discussions for the next few days I’ll go around and make Polaroids of everybody, which I then give to them. I find the Polaroid is a great friend maker. My Polaroids show them how I see tem and let them decide if they’re comfortable with my vision.
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.
I liked very Ghana very much. The people were friendly, very open and honest. They speak English, as well as Twi and Ga. Reminded me of the people I grew up around in Alabama.
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."
If a black mamba bites you don’t even have time to scream. The venom directly attacks the nervous system. I’d walked by the black mamba twice. I’m not deeply religious, but I believe in spirituality. Everything is a manifestation of the Spirit, including a black mamba. Both of us live in the Spirit and the Spirit is peaceful. The black mamba did not attack me.
THE SLITHERING SAND
Much of northern Africa is desert. I found out from traveling that I really love deserts. They’re so bare and tranquil. I’m essentially a loner. I love people, but I love to know that I can get away from them. If I have a choice, though, of being with people or by myself, I choose to be by myself. Deserts afford you that sort of luxury. People of the desert don’t need to have chatter. They spend more time with themselves and I’m simpatico with that.
During the Sahara drought disaster, I was in the desert covering this refugee camp. In the daytime there’s nothing in the desert but camel and people. That first night when I put a cot down, I was about six inches above the sand.
I was lying there, looking at the stars, the big open sky. All of a sudden, the desert floor became a superhighway of scorpions, snakes, all kind of wild life. I could hear them slithering through the sand underneath my cot. I realized that if one of these poisonous creatures wanted to bite me tonight there was nothing I could do. I could try to stay awake and peer into the darkness but I wouldn’t be able to do anything but drive myself crazy. Further more, being so far out into the desert, I death came to me, it would take a year before the word got back to New York City.
The first thing you learn in Alabama where you grow up around a lot of snakes and wild animals is that you attract them with your fear. And not only wild animals, also human animals. When you walk down the street, if you have fear, you attract people who are predators. To not fear you first must understand that law of nature. I said to myself, if the Spirit thinks that what I am doing is important enough that I should wake up in the morning, then I will wake up. If not, then I won’t. I went to sleep.
In a way, I see myself as an cultural anthropologist with a camera and I want to become an effective visual maker. To me, visuals have to perform a service. The service is to enlarge the vision.
With Feeling the Spirit, I’ve been able to do a really serious piece of literature. I believe the book brings clarity to a subject that nobody quite knew how to tame, a work I hope will contribute something to the understanding of life. Perhaps something I’ve also helped to push back the borders of ignorance.
For visually exploring the decency, dignity and virtuous character of African people, the continent offers great opportunities of discovery. Africa is still virgin territory. Everything I do needs to be done and hasn’t been done. I have a lifelong work. There is constant discovery and exploration of new information. I think my Great-uncle Forth would approve. Until the Spirit takes me away, this is what I’ll do,