The Washington Post
Thursday, August 8, 1974Drums of Life
Focusing Past The Stereotypes
By Angela Terrell
Back in 1968 while studying business management at Tuskegee University, Chester Higgins Jr., became dismayed at the limited diversity in media portrayal of blacks. "I saw the danger of the media was that it could condition people’s minds to what other people are supposed to me.
"If the media imagined a ‘black militant’ as a big guy with an Afro and fierce expression, they’d search for and photograph someone of this description and label him. When in fact, maybe the guy’s feet hurt," said Higgins.
At this point, to "set the record straight about black people," Alabama-born Higgins became a photographer. He followed a brief stint with Look magazine with a book, "Black Woman," because he was tired of "white images of black women as bitches and whores."
Now its sequel, a photographic essay on the black man in America titled "Drums of Life," has been published by Doubleday’s Anchor Press. This time he was tired of the "dishonest fantasies" he saw depicting black men as super studs or downtrodden losers."My effort is not to interpret the lives of the people I photograph," Higgins wrote for a recent exhibit of these same photographs, "I don’t judge them. My only desire is to give them the vehicle to express themselves."
Chester Higgins Jr., 27, is a slender man with quick brown eyes and movements. He dresses casually in non-descript tweeds, open shirt collar hung with an African Sahara Desert symbol, and soft suede walking shoes. At a recent interview over lunch, he picked lightly over a cold buffet and drank nothing stronger than iced tea.
"I’m not in love wit the craft of photography — the mechanics are only the craft of photography — the mechanics are only a means to an end," said Higgins. "I’m more interested in the power of communication, the need and desire to project black life. I don’t take pictures, so to speak, those photographs represent my thoughts, my perceptions."
With "Drums," Higgins makes a positive, universal and artistic statement about black men: They live "with lots of love" in spite of the violence that surrounds the lives of some. "Do not see only the pain of our sojourn here…" black writer Orde Coombs says in the accompanying test.
The 131-page soft-cover volume portrays their lives from childbirth to the awakening of a young man meeting his woman and enjoying his children. Some faces are famous, like actor Raymond St. Jacques, others not. In the faces of his old men, wisdom shines like sunbeams.
"I want you to see that my life (the black man) is a full and natural life," said Higgins.
Higgins’ experience is extensive for his short years (six) in photography. His first assignment with Look resulted in a five-page spread of the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Black Expo and he’s exhibited nationwide, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution. Besides lecturing at Harvard and Dartmount, he has done special photography for the MGM’s film, "Shaft Big Score."
Home is the modest Fort Greene section of Brooklyn where he lives with his wife and their two children. Higgins currently is working on a documentation of faces of Africa (including some from the drought region of the Sahel) and a compilation of a black history archive scheduled to be published under the title, "Some Time Ago." Both projects are funded by grants from the Ford Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission.
"I was once told that I couldn’t afford to take around a portfolio filled with black folks," said Higgins reflecting on his blossoming career. "But since my cultural perspective is black," he reasoned, "I didn’t see any reason not to show blacks as part of the universality of being alive."