Invoking the Spirt
Worship Traditions in the African World
Chester Higgins Jr., does with his camera what Aretha Franklin does with a song, what Max Roach does with drums, what Toni Morrison does with words, what Spike Lee does with film. This self-described "cultural anthropologist with a camera" grabs your attention because his material is vaguely familiar but also different, unexpected, riveting. Once he has your attention, Mr. Higgins provides entree into a place that is often off limits to those who do not belong, the private world of African Americans at play or in prayer, in triumph or in tragedy. Black, as refracted through Mr. Higgins's lens, is much more than a color. Documenting the enormous diversity among African Americans is rarely acknowledged in the mass media, is the raison d'être of much of his work.
It is perhaps in their expression of faith that African Americans are most diverse: they are Jewish and Christian and Muslim, as well as adherents of African religions perhaps more ancient. To the uninitiated—to those, that is, who have not been exposed to Mr. Higgins's work—all blacks are Baptists and praise God through gospel music. His photo essay "Invoking the Spirit: Worship traditions in the African World, on exhibition at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, (October 2, 1994-January 16, 1995).shows otherwise worshipers in New York Tap Ancestral Roots" . These photographs were taken over a five-year period. From more than 2,000 images on more than 600 rolls of film, something truly African within them. That is true of the Pentecostal Christians who were born into the faith as it is of the more recent converts to the African faiths of long—forgotten ancestors.
To understand the magnitude of the assignment Mr. Higgins gave himself, one must know that it is in religious worship that African Americans have traditionally had their greatest freedom from the oppressive world at large, and thus guard the sanctity of their worship from intruders. They are especially suspicious of anyone who shows up with a camera. Time and again Mr. Higgins persuaded the leader of a flock to give him a hearing, then persuaded that leader to support his project. But even that did not mean he could begin taking pictures: he still had to persuade the worshipers to let him photograph their services.
I'm spiritual, not religious," says Mr. Higgins, who was a Baptist preacher from the age of 9 until undergraduate days at Tuskegee University. "To me the Spirit creates humans. Humans then create religions. Religions then create walls. I don't want to be walled in; I don't want to be walled out from what is created by the spirit."
Perhaps that is what his subjects—whether in Brooklyn or in the Gullah country of South Carolina, in Puerto Rico or in Senegal—sense when he approaches them. "What we're connected by is a spiritual experience," he says.
That comes through in this photo essay on New Yorkers, where one can sense commonality among the different, as between the Orisha summoning the soul by blowing conch shells and the rabbi blowing the shofar on a Hebrew holy day; or the quiet strength of the Nubian priestess and the Apostolic parishioner.
Throughout his career, Mr. Higgins has been "feeling the spirit" of the peoples of the African Diaspora and inviting-indeed, challenging—those who view his photographs to do so too. Certainly he takes people who are not black into a world they never knew existed; but perhaps more important, he takes black people there too, reconnecting them to a past they never knew or never knew well. Pride, hope and dignity leap out from Mr. Higgins's photographs, not the pain, pathos and pessimism that often dominate other documentaries of the black experience.
This photo essay is part of a larger project that has occupied Mr. Higgins throughout his 30 year career: the creation of what he describes as a "photographic encyclopedia of the life and times of people of African descent." He has used vacation time and his own money to hopscotch the globe, spending 8—12 weeks a year on both sides of the Atlantic in search of the African heritage. In this journey he has photographed burial ceremonies in West Africa and the 18th-century African Burial Ground in Manhattan; the portals through which Africans were led on their way to board slave ships and the old market in which they were sold in Charleston, S.C. This year alone he plans to visit West Africa, Western Europe, South America and the Caribbean.
Fortunately for those who cannot make the actual journey with him, Mr. Higgins has given us the next best thing.