Chester Higgins at Karnak Temple, Egypt, 2023. Photo by Betsy Kissam.
Interview with Chester Higgins
By Daniela Cohen
Published April 2023
Chester Higgins, Jr. has spent over five decades documenting the African American experience, past and present. Born in Fairhope, Alabama, Higgins worked as a photographer at the New York Times for nearly forty years. Published collections of his photography include Black Woman; Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa; Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging; Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey; and his latest book, Sacred Nile.
Daniela Cohen: I’d love to hear more about how your journey into photography started?
Chester Higgins: My beginning of photography was accidental or just fortuitous. I was a business management major at Tuskegee and needed a photographer for display ads in the newspaper. This photographer had missed a deadline, so I drove to his house.
Some photographs on his wall struck me because they were photographs of poor people, very dignified people. They reminded me of the dignity of people from my hometown.
It made me think wow, the image validates whatever is showing. Most people of color did not have money to go for a formal sitting, so I thought, what if I could give my great aunt and uncle a picture of themselves to hang on their wall? But I didn’t know how to make photographs, so I asked this man to teach me.
A year later, I started making pictures. I had them framed and took them down to my great aunt and uncle and placed them on their wall. My reward was seeing their faces light up when they recognized that they themselves were worthy enough to be on their walls. Not that they felt any inadequacy about being themselves, it’s just something they never thought about.
Essentially, validation is what I’ve always done with my camera. I started out with a love for my immediate family. But it’s been consistently a love for people who look like me and who experience the same experience.
I didn’t try to show how badly Black people are suffering. That sort of photography sacrificed the humanity of the people on the altars of racism, and I refuse to be a party to that sort of sacrifice. I want my images to be good food for the mind. It’s very important you balance out your imagery by using both the head and the heart. And that’s what I’ve always done.
“There is no one like you” a couple’s passionate embrace. Brooklyn, New York 1987. © Chester Higgins. All Rights Reserved.
DC: It sounds like you’ve been consciously shifting the narrative that’s being put out there by the choices that you’re making.
CH: I cannot do away with the racist images that everybody has been producing. What I can do is add another perspective, so that people will notice another view as well. So, the spirit that allowed me to be at the New York Times for almost 40 years and to apply change in that paper. I was not the only photographer there, but I was one who consistently felt it was my duty to broaden the view for New York Times readers of people who look like me. And it being a paper for decision makers, that was a very important place to be.
DC: I’m curious about the idea of your photography giving visual expression to your personal and collective memories. Could you talk more about that and how your photos are connected to themes of place and identity?
CH: Living is very ethereal—like smoke from a cigarette. We certainly produce it, but as smoke, it disappears. So, on a very personal level, my photographs are another aspect of keeping a journal. I keep a journal to unload what has happened during the day and to have that as a record that today actually happened and then as another record of how I internally process today.
I also tried to get the smoke of the reality of people in a time before me. This was a 10-year project looking at historical photographs made of my people by other photographers, 99% White. I spent years going back and forth to the Library of Congress, going to see the FSA photographs, going through the archives of Black colleges or universities and public libraries. And then doing more primary research by trying to locate the family historian in different communities to see what they had in their shoeboxes underneath the bed. I looked for the pictures that I would have made. That had the same sensitivity that I would have had, had I been on-site.
I didn’t want to take anybody else’s pictures though, so I came up with an idea that I needed a nice, big negative. I started shooting four by fives with a light stand that I took with me. I would have pictures that I fell in love with and copied. Those copies gradually grew to many hundreds of contact sheets. And eventually I was able to do a book called Some Time Ago: A Historical Portrait of Black Americans from 1850–1950.
DC: Can you tell me about what first took you to Africa?
CH: In America, as a Black person, you are convinced that you’re not American because you’re not accepted. Your sense of history comes from people who despise you, which means that it can only be warped. As a student with a minor in sociology, I understood that if I was going to find out about the multiplicity of who I and we are as a people, I had to create my own sources. And those sources had to be in Africa because the American academy had already proven inadequate to that task.
I started spending summers in Africa hanging out with my ‘cousins’ to learn from their side. I learned Asante culture in Ghana, Islamic and Wallof culture in Senegal, Amharic culture in Ethiopia. I had a job that took me to Egypt in 1973, but then the October war broke out, and I was stuck for another four weeks. It would turn out to be great for me because I got a chance to spend more time at the museum and antiquity sites and interrogate these things in front of me that I had had no idea existed, that no history book told me about. All that interrogation is part of the memories, the memories coming back alive only because there is physical evidence that remains of those previous lives that make up the experience of the African people.
Solar Aksumite Obelisk in Ethiopian highlands stands as a Royal tomb marker. 2016. © Chester Higgins. All Rights Reserved.
DC: Tell me about the inspiration behind your latest book, Sacred Nile.
CH: It’s a product of five decades of work that looks at how the Nile as a migratory bridge connected Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt and how it shares its cultures back and forth. It’s looking at the earliest remnants of culture, that belief in the sun and the sky that was developed by Ethiopians migrating down the river into Sudan and then further migrating into ancient Egypt. And then over time, after 7,000 years, it reversed.
The ancient nature religion of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan bifurcated and became the patriarch religions of the Old Testament, the New Testament and Islam. So 7,000 years earlier, what went downstream, 7,000 years later something else comes back upstream.
In Feeling the Spirit, I’m trying to show that we all have similarities. We have our differences, but the differences are usually nationalistic, not cultural. And the cultural differences hold us together. So, in the book, I’ll have a picture of something that you recognize, say a mother. She could be in Alabama and in the next picture, she’s in Ghana. The next picture, she may be in Nigeria.
With Sacred Nile, my hope is that we recognize our history. Because it’s not something that we have been taught…. I tell people, slavery is not the beginning of our history. Slavery is an interruption of our history.
DC: It seems one of your main goals is capturing the spirit that’s present in all things, that transcends the labels that we put on ourselves and each other. Could you tell me more about why that’s so important to you and the techniques you use to bring that out in your work?
CH: I had an out-of-body death experience when I was nine years old. Early in the morning, I hear this sound in my room and it’s in my head not in the air and I open my eyes and see this big circle of white light on the wall. And this Black man standing in the middle with his hands raised, wearing a toga. He begins to walk toward me and says, “I come for you,” and I’m scared but I’m pissed. I’ve heard about this angel of death, but I’m only nine years old. And what the fuck, I gotta die? So, I scream. My parents and grandparents came in. My mother was at the foot of the bed holding my hands and I began to feel I was ascending and she was getting smaller. She kept rubbing my hands so viciously that at some point, it must have worked because I came back down. But when I was seeing her getting smaller, it made me realize this is what dying is like. Then I begin to intuitively realize there’s a parallel thing going on here. Because I’m dying and she’s there living and I’m beginning to get a feel for a whole other kind of reality. So, I put that away, but I’ve always benefited from that. Whenever I see something, I know that there is something else behind it. What it appears to be is only one dimension of it. But the other dimensions that are really pulling the strings going on behind it are a lot more interesting.
DC: So, when you’re making the photographs, it’s in the multi-dimensional reality and you’re allowing that which is beyond the surface to emerge and that’s what you’re capturing.
CH: At that moment when the shutter is pressed, I have to make that decision. Every photographer has to make that decision based on whatever their reality is about. My reality is the same as yours on one level, but there’s something underneath that speaks to me. There’s a certain timeless quality to my imagery, and it cannot be arrested. The simplest arrested photograph is a fashion photograph. It gets arrested in time. I’m always trying to create an image that does not get arrested in time. I’m surfing on the spirit.
Daniela Cohen is a freelance journalist and non-fiction writer of South African origin based in Vancouver, Canada. Her work has been published in New Canadian Media, Canadian Immigrant, eJewish Philanthropy, The Source Newspaper, and Living Hyphen. Daniela’s work focuses on themes of displacement and belonging, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. She is also the co-founder of Identity Pages, a youth writing mentorship program.