NRG Magazine.
Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Spring 2004

The Man behind the pictures

Words Mosi Secret

Imagine if you will, in black and white, a lone tree in an arid West African savannah — a baobab tree, a tree believed to house spirits, a tree that haunts. It stands as tall as five men, as wide around as the chain they would form hand in hand. It tilts to the left, but does not fall; its trunk is too sturdy, the exposed roots too strong. Imagine branches that look like arms outstretched in anthropomorphic welcome, in defiance of the sandstorm that threatens on the horizon. Like that, it stands in repose — lasting, enduring, waiting, as it has for hundreds of years, as it could for hundreds more. Still.

Fort Greene-based photographer Chester Higgins Jr., travels the Diaspora capturing images like this one. A sixth sense propels his wanderlust — he says he can find wht he calls "the African Spirit," in myriad manifestations, which he catches with his 35mm camera. He’s been to Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Europe. He’s traveled the Unites States. His books Feeling the Spirit and the forthcoming Echo of the Spirit, contains many of the pictures. His portfolio is a who’s who of black arts, letters, and politics, with portraits of Mandela, Marley, and Miles, among many others.

I met Higgins at the Brooklyn Moon Café, on Fulton Street, on a cold Friday just before sundown. He’d promised me an hour to pick his brain — to peer into the imagination behind the pictures. We have a tendency, I think, to regard photographers with romantic reverence, as if they can see things we cannot, find beauty in places we’ve overlooked. Eager to slice through the romance, I had one simple question: How do you do it?

Higgins grew up in a southern Alabama town of only 600 people, called New Brockton. He held great admiration for his elders — his parents, aunt and uncle — and his love for them inspired him to pick up his first camera at the age of twenty-one. While enrolled at Tuskegee University, Higgins met Alabama photographer P.H.Polk. When Higgins saw Polk’s pictures of old people and the countryside, he wanted pictures of his own family. "The reason Polk put a camera in my hand was because I asked him to, "he told me with the self-assurance of one that has pulled himself up by the bootstrap. "I asked him to explain his pictures to me. I got the stories behind the process and how he did his stuff," Higgins said. Then he set out to make his own pictures.

Imagine if you will, in black and white, great-aunt Shugg kneeling in prayer before sunrise. Through a window, you see her at her bedside with her weight on her soft. Brown arms, her hands relaxed. Her knuckles push through worn skin, and her palms are soft. Her white uniform, bright against the cheerless walls, is freshly pressed. For what she prays is hard to say, but she’s done it morning and night for the stretch of memory.

Down-home country rearing and years of hard work have instilled in Higgins a self-reliance that scoffs at paternalistic liberalism. He’s a doer. When he moved from Alabama to Ft. Greene in 1970, he called the photo editors from every magazine in New York, and asked them what he needed to learn to be a photographer. The editors found his photographs "interesting." They showed him the work of successful photographers and helped him to see what his photographs were missing. He honed his craft, and a job at The New York Times was the eventual payoff for his efforts. In this same enterprising spirit, he sought out the mentorship of Romare Bearden (regarded by many as the best black artist of the 20th century), and others. When it comes to social advancement, "Black folks need to stop playing the victim," he told me more than once. "Victim." I was so used to hearing the word from the likes of those who, in denying the effects of racism, have done more harm than good. I cringed each time he said it. But to his credit, Higgins did not deny the existence or the effects of racism. Curious to see what the photographer sees, I listened on.

"We can’t get beyond self-hate. Black folks need to stop feeling sorry for themselves and making excuses." He acknowledged that, yes, African Americans battle an atrocious history, and yes, the American economic/criminal justice/educational/whatever-you-wanna-call-it system is fucked up. But he insisted that other Americans have succeeded despite the obstacles. Recent immigrants and Jews were his prime examples. "They come and they make it real quick because they love education and they know the most important thing is to amass money. We have to fall in love with education and fall in love with wealth and producing money. In this country the laws are not made by voting but by the people that write the checks."

Fall in love with money? So much for the notions of the starving artist — so much for the tendency for artists, at least outwardly, to live by a counter-culture creed, to create art that grows from critique of the system(s). Or is that a fantasy that black folks can’t afford to buy into to?

"The responsibility of an African American artist is to encourage us to become better people, and to help us grow as a people — to challenge our weaknesses and give praise to our strengths."

It’s a lesson he learned from his camera. "When I first picked up the camera, I had no politics," he said. "I realized that when you see pictures of our people, they were always missing three fundamental things that are automatically given to white people: decency, dignity and virtuous character. It’s automatically assumed that white people have those things. When white people photograph other whites in poverty, they don’t sacrifice their humanity, but with us, that’s the first thing they sacrifice."

For Higgins, the source of that humanity and dignity is the African spirit, so he travels the globe capturing it with his camera. "Our salvation is tied to what else we are other than Americans. We have to use our African heritage the way the Jew and the Chinese use their heritage. Their sense of purpose is tied to where they come from and they use it to define themselves." He went on, "We are only as strong as Africa is strong. We have to embrace the American part of us that is industrious and loves making money, as well as the African spirit. I’m interested in how photography can help encourage that new person."

Imagine if you will, in black and white, a crushed skeleton so old and decomposed — the skeleton of an enslaved African, over three centuries old. It lay just before you, shrouded in darkness, save for the sunlight that crept into the earthen tomb. The light catches the smoke as it snakes its way up and away from the stick of incense. A Yoruba priestess draped in lace and white cloth offers a bowl of an undisclosed liquid for libation; a Khamite priest holds an ankh. Their faces are beyond your immediate view; you see only their arms and hands outstretched in offering. The light catches the priest’s ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life and regeneration. New life for the old slave in lower Manhattan.

"My passion," Higgins said, "is to try to rehabilitate us in the eyes of ourselves and in the eyes of our neighbors." NRG

For more information about Chester Higgins visit

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