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The Personal Projects of Chester Higgins Jr.


The Personal Projects of Chester Higgins Jr. Interview by Casey Allen (1995) PART ONE RELAYING HIS VISUAL MESSAGE

W

hen I was a student at Tuskegee University, I was the business manager for the school newspaper, The Campus Digest. We were using photographs for national ads but not for 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 hired the university photographer, P.H.Polk, to make the photographs for these new ads. One day we were on deadline at the press, and the only thing missing was his photographs. He was slow getting the prints to us. I drove to Mr. Polk’s studio on Washington Avenue. I explained our predicament and told him that we needed the photographs now and I wasn’t leaving until I had them. Luckily he had shot the photographs but had not processed the film. After he finished processing the film, he showed me the strips of negatives — I’d never seen negatives before. I thought, what an incredible idea, the whole of 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, lit with only a low red light, put some paper in the enlarger, and made the exposure. When he put this paper into a pool of developer, an image began to emerge; it was truly magic. While I was waiting for the prints to dry, I went downstairs into his studio to look around at the many portraits of university people on the walls and under counter glass. I noticed, hidden behind a curtain, a group of portraits of rural people. What I found most captivating about these portraits was their dignity and character. These portraits brought to mind people in my small hometown, a little country town of 800 — New Brockton in southeast Alabama. Seeing these pictures, I thought, wow, I’ve never seen a photograph of my favorite Great-aunt Shugg Lampley, who was a midwife, or her Lezlie Harrison, New York City, 2005 Cover: Nyota, Aswan, Egypt, 2004


brother, my favorite Great-uncle March Fourth McGowan, 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 Mr. Polk to travel 100 miles south to make these pictures. 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 lived to die at the age of 97, about ten years ago. Her brother, my Great-uncle Forth, is still alive. This past March, he turned 105. FIGHTING THROUGH PICTURES As a student during the mid-60s, 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 and criminalized us. Knowing that I was part of this and seeing how it was portrayed made me very angry. But it 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 or marginalized. Images portrayed either a law-breaker or a pathological deviant on the edge of society. Nothing reflected the multi-dimensionality of the people in my community. I had a choice. I could either rail against racism or try to make the images that were more reflective of the people I knew. Producing a more complete view 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.

P. H. Polk, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, 1968

All of us are products of our socialization. Obviously, not all people are racists, not all people are narrow-minded. There are people who can deal with new information, who can say, wow, I never thought of this before.


The Boss Š P. H. Polk, 1929, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama Shugg Lampley, New Brockton, 1968


That’s really what my mission has been about, to try to connect with 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. This helped me to develop an attitude about seeing the work that I do as a business. So many people in the arts can handle the creative end of things, but they lack an understanding of business. As I was growing up, having a mother who taught school often turned out to be a major drag on my social life. Under her watchful eye, 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 and instilled in me a love for knowledge. These skills I learned from her still form 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 of about a thousand volumes, researching or working in my picture files from 9:30pm until midnight or 1am. I came to New York in the summer of 1969 passing through on 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 student, I understood that I had to be competitive. My hope, due to their knowledge about various photographers, was that they would be able to identify my weaknesses and offer constructive criticism about how I could improve. On that trip, I was fortunate enough to meet with 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 the door to ask Sam a question. He saw that Sam was looking at my portfolio and asked who

March Fourth McGowan, 1986


I was. I introduced myself. He told me to come by his office when I was finished. Sam hurried me off. I went to this other man’s office. As he looked at my work, I asked for criticism. “So many ideas and concepts poured out his mouth in a way that opened my mind’s eye 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.” This initial meeting started a creative process for me that continued throughout the summer — shooting, and then Mr. Rothstein critiquing my work, and offering ideas and then my trying to put those ideas into visual practice. Every day I’d come back, showing more contact sheets from yesterday’s shoots, asking how I did, trying to understand what I missed and what more I had to learn? Over that summer we developed a close relationship. Also that summer, I somehow managed to get a contract from a publisher to do my first book. When I came back to New York the summer of 1970, I had delivered on my book contract. The book, Black Woman, came out in September and I started freelancing wherever I could find work. My first magazine assignment came from Mr. Rothstein. I substituted for 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.” 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.

Miriam Makeba, 1973


The Look job was covering 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 story 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 was published just before the magazine folded in October 1971. PART TWO: APPLYING HIS CRAFT WORLDWIDE My first excursion to Africa was in the fall of 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 here I was a member of the majority, no longer part of a minority. Normalcy had become me. I no longer had to deal with a hostile majority culture because I was different from the rest. People might dislike me, but it would not be automatically because my skin was different. This new sense of belonging lifted a heavy burden from my shoulders. For the first time, I was in a place where I was no longer the other.

Niger, 1975

I started going back and forth to different parts of Africa, living there one to three to six months at a time, documenting life in various countries. I look for private, intimate pictures. But I had to reach out to the people to get them to accept me. People I wanted to photograph, I had to let them know immediately that I liked them — I’d come to sit and be here for a while. Being a country boy from Alabama I found village people most appealing. I made it


a point not to judge people. My youthful head finally figured out that when you judge people, it won’t change them, it only gives you heartburn. On that first trip, my eyes were really excited. With the camera, I was trying to take in everything. I feverishly made pictures of everything I saw. Despite these new commonalities, there were limits to my understandings. Gradually, I learned that I lacked the frame of reference to fully understand the complexity of the culture in front of me. Merely being of African descent could open doors but if my photographs were to have any real depth, I had to start learning more about the complexity of African cultures. I realized that, despite my rebellion against the “racism of America” and my desperate willingness to embrace my “lost Africaness,” culturally I was more American than African. I had to learn how to equalize this equation. When I returned to New York, I started to read everything I could about African culture, politics and history, pulling apart the multi-layers of African identity. I needed books that would talk to me about what was going on in the daily reality of these different countries. What were the cultural issues, the social issues and political issues of the day? What were the historical backgrounds? Who were these people, how were they different, and how did they perceive these differences among each other? RECRUITED BY THE TIMES In 1975, on one of my trips to the African continent, I completed a photographic essay on the drought in the Sa-

The Atlantic surf, Ghana, 1973


The Oba of Lago, Nigeria, 1975

Taureg, Niger, 1975


Royal procession, Koforidua, Ghana, 1974


hel area where thousands of people were dying because the desert was moving south. Americans were not aware of this situation nor concerned about the big problem it had become. The problem was so big that managing it was beyond the ability of the affected countries or small relief agencies working there. The problem needed American 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 lack of food and water. John Morris, who had been picture editor at The Times and was then setting up a syndicated picture service for The Times, after buying some of my images, asked me if I’d like to work for The Times. Even though I’d done some freelancing for The Times Arts & Leisure section edited by Seymour Peck, having a full time job was not on my mind. It would mean I’d have to abandon some of personal projects that I believed were very important. I talked the offer over with Arthur Rothstein, who thought having a daily deadline would tighten up my visual thinking, and with Cornell Capa, who thought that this was better than freelancing. Finally, having two young children under the age of five made me reconsider. I called John the next day. “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 photographs had been appearing in the Arts and Leisure section of The Times. Seymour 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 the Managing Editor at The Times, Abe Rosenthal, to come in for an interview. At the beginning of the interview I asked why he’d called me as I had expected a call from the photo editor. 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. When I asked who his sister was, he replied Rose Newman. I had no idea that Seymour Peck’s assistant, Rose Newman, was Abe Rosenthal’s sister. I didn’t even realize who Abe Rosenthal was until after my interview. EXHIBITION TRAVELS Before I began working at The New York Times, I had published two books. In 1976, a year after I started at The Times, the USIA (United States Information Service) took my first two books and opened an exhi-

Yoff, Senegal, 1973


bition of the pictures in Cameroon, Africa. The USIA is part of the State Department. 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. We struck up a conversation and walked along for an hour or two, finally ending up on a rocky beach, still talking. As we sat down on the beach, one of them confessed that at the beginning, they had been afraid I might be CIA, but after talking with me they knew I was not. I traveled again with the exhibition when it went to Nigeria. 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?” Obviously not all Nigerians are extortionists. All I know is that on the streets of Lagos, it was hard to find a person who was not eager to make me a victim. It’s nothing personal. Everybody does it to everybody else. 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 a bit too crazy, so he let me go. In a situation like that, you have to remember not to be an American in a hurry, not to have a deadline. SPEAKING A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

Royal Court Linguist, Kumasi, Ghana, 2000

When I first began my field trips to Africa, I didn’t speak French. I had to learn basic greetings in order to maneuver in French-speaking countries. But there were also German-, Portuguese-, Spanish-, and Italian-speaking countries, not to mention the literally hundreds of local languages and dialects. I had to become an expert in body language, to communicate my desire to make photographs and obtain permission from the people. As a photographer, it became an interesting challenge.


Working this way required me to add a new skill to the creative mix in order 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 animals, natural resources or business. The people weren’t important. Obviously, the ones who rose above this nonbeing were the heads of state. But even in photographs of heads of state, this condescending attitude was usually visible. My mission has been to rebrand the visual document as it pertains to people of African descent. Looking 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 attempt to capture these qualities, something that had rarely been done before. My personal project is now limited to my vacation time. So I’ve been working on my three-and four-week vacations 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, I was able to accumulate eight additional weeks. So that year’s vacation I took off three months from work and I spent a month at a time in South America, Africa and the Caribbean. Decades before, 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 and birth is fatal. PART THREE: ADAPTING TO HIS SURROUNDINGS In some places, having a camera can cause people to become agitated. When I want to document events and ceremonies, especially religious ceremonies — something that is private and personal — I run the risk of disrupting worshippers’ supplications to their God. If I do that, I’m in serious trouble. A good deal of my research takes place in rare bookstores before I make my field trip. Most regular bookstores don’t carry the kind of books I need. I also try to get a local newspaper subscription from the

Koforidua, Ghana 1974


Omolu, Cachoeira, Brazil, 1990


country I’m planning on visiting so I can get to know the people, see if any of the names that pop up can be helpful to me. In addition, I try to make contacts in that country with historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and so forth. I ask them if they have made friends or have contacts who could facilitate for me. Whatever name they give me, I contact and see if I can hire that person as a facilitator. Then, when I arrive, the facilitator has already hired a car and driver and made all of the necessary arrangements. These local people become my field staff. The first thing I do when I arrive 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, have no idea what you believe and don’t know the intensity of your faith. I want to bring back to other people what I have discovered.” GOOD VIBRATIONS Gaining intimate access 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 that 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 is okay, then I can photograph. If the vibes say no, that’s it. No access. 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 going to sift me. I must surrender control — control cannot be an issue. I can simply ask, but I have no power. I seek to reason with the people. They vibe me, they ask me questions, and I try to connect 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 FRIENDS WITH POLAROIDS After the initial discussion, the next few days I’ll go around making Polaroid prints, which I then give to the subjects. I find the Polaroid is a great friend maker. My Polaroid shows people how I see them and lets them decide if they are comfortable with my vision. Mamadou, Agadez, Niger, 1975


Noon prayer, Agadez, Niger, 1975


After a couple of days giving out Polaroids, I take out my camera, the 35mm. By then everybody has a Polaroid and because of the Polaroid I get to know everybody in the community — the old people, the young people, the kids. When they find out that the 35mm camera doesn’t give out a picture, they get bored and don’t pay much attention to me. Now I can keep shooting pictures in private, intimate situations, and they ignore me. 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 inside there with them to become part of the family, part of the daily fabric of living. I eat the food they eat, sleep where they sleep, follow their schedule. ADAPTATION SKILLS I like Ghana very much. The people are very friendly, open and honest. They speak English, as well as Twi and Ga. Ghanaians remind me of the people I grew up around in Alabama. One time in Ghana, I came out of my house and walked down a path and then turned back. When I heard something behind me, I turned around. About 20 or 30 feet behind me on the path was a man beating the ground with a machete. I went back to him, “What are you doing?” I asked. “This black mamba was right here,” he told me. 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 realize that 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 alone. 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 of 1975, I visited a refugee camp a day away from Agadez, Niger. In the daytime there’s nothing in the desert but a hot Sun, camels 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 crawling things like scorpions, snakes, and all kinds of wildlife. I could hear them slithering through the sand underneath my cot. I realized that if one of these poisonous creatures wanted to bite me, 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, if death came to me, it could take a year before the word got back to New York City. The first thing you are taught in Alabama where snakes are abundant is that wild animals are attracted to your fear. Not only wild animals, also human animals feed on this fear as well. 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. Addressing my fear, 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 a cultural anthropologist with a camera and I want to become an effective visual maker. I want to enlarge people’s vision, to share the vision I see. I want my images to take the viewer on a journey they never could have imagined. With Feeling the Spirit, I’ve been able to complete a serious piece of literature. I believe the book brings clarity to a subject that few had the capacity to embrace. It is a work I hope will continue to contribute something to the understanding of life. The African continent offers great opportunities for visually exploring the issues of decency, dignity and virtuous character of African people. I have a lifelong work before me. 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 continue to do.

The Personal Projects of Chester Higgins Jr.  

Essay and images by photographer Chester Higgins Jr. related to his personal work.

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