Los Angeles Times
January 6, 1996
Traveling the Globe to Document the Spirit of a People
By Suzanne Muchnic
Times Art Writer
"As a teenager, coming of age in Alabama, the images of African Americans I saw in the media didn't look like me or the people I knew," says New York Times staff photographer Chester Higgins Jr. "They were very pejorative. They overlooked three issues: decency, dignity and character."
When he got hooked on photography as a student at Tuskegee University in the 1960s, it was probably inevitable that Higgins would take on the challenge of producing a fuller, richer, more accurate portrait of his peopleor, as he puts it, "reinvent the visual document." But he never imagined that his mission would consume every spare minute of his time and lead to a study of the African Diaspora that has taken him on travels to 30 countries on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
"If I had seen the enormity of it, I probably wouldn't have continued," he says. "I didn't know that my social life would be gone and that I would use every vacation to travel somewhere different to take more pictures and return to work needing a vacation."
Stillnearly 30 years after he began celebrating African heritage on film and 20 years after he joined the staff of The New York Timesthe 49-year-old photojournalist has a lot to show for his effort. An exhibition of his work, "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa," opens Wednesday at Peter Fetterman Photographic Works of Art in Santa Monica. It's the West Coast counterpart of a traveling show that will close this weekend at New York's International Center of Photography and move on to Chicago, Boston, Newark and Washington. The black-and-white images in both exhibitions are drawn from a Bantam book by the same name that consists of 220 pictures and Higgins' written account of his project.
He credits several photographers as his mentors: P.H. Polk, who got him started at Tuskegee; Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration photographer and director of Look magazine photography, who hired Higgins to work for the magazine just before its demise in 1971; Gordon Parks, a longtime friend who is also an author, filmmaker and composer; and Cornell Capa, founder of the International Center of Photography. They have inspired and encouraged a career that includes photographs published in Time, Newsweek, Life, Fortune, Ebony and Black Enterprise. But "Feeling the Spirit" is the result of a personal odyssey.
"I started where I was, in Alabama," Higgins says. "That circle led to other circles, first on the East Coast, then in Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Europe." To gain access to the people and places he wanted to photograph in each new location, he had to make connections and educate himself about local customs.
The project began with "no focus and no direction," he says. But the book demanded a coherent form, so he culled thousands of pictures and came up with eight themes. The first, "Most Ancient Place," features images of Ethiopia and Egypt intended to correct misconceptions of Africas as people whose history begins with enslavement. "My people didn't come from West Africa, they came through West Africa" he says. "Slavery is a condition, not an ethnicity."
The second chapter, "Middle Passage," deals with slavery, and successive sections focus on life along bodies of water, domestic and religious sanctuaries, spiritual centers, styles of dress and personal adornment, rituals and celebrations. The final chapter, "In Each Moment," looks for the universal meaning in ordinary events.
Throughout the project, Higgins has been motivated by a desire to supply information that has been missing in the media, but he also wants to transform visual documents into works of art. Two things distinguish his work from that of his peers, he says. "One, I shoot into the light. Two, I am concerned about the spirit. I believe it is everywhere, in everything. I try to capture the signature of the spirit."
The book and related exhibitions don't mean he has completed his quest. The story he wants to tell is much too big for one artist, he says. I just hope I can be a bridge between those of us who have been victims of narrow information and that I can contribute to the collective intelligence."
At the same time, he portrays himself as a "seeker of knowledge" who is fascinated by his search. "My passion has locked onto something that is not boring," he says. And he has learned to live with the fact that no end is in sight.
"It's like eating an elephant," he says. "You have to do it one bite at a time." A friend offered him that bit of wisdom 10 or 15 years ago, and he has taken it to heart. "Once I thought about that, I said, 'OK, I can deal with that."