Photographer Interview: Chester Higgins Jr – Part 1

Photographer Interview: Chester Higgins Jr – Part 1

To many of you, Photographer Chester Higgins, Jr. probably needs no introduction. For those who don’t know him, you’ve likely seen his images in The New York Times where he’s been a staff photographer since 1975.

Bringing a unique, compassionate view of humanity to his work, Chester’s someone we can all learn from. I’m delighted to publish this 2-part interview offering insight into how this photographer has mastered his craft.

D&B: What made you want to become a photographer?

CH: In the Western mind the understanding or appreciation of African people usually is confined to a very narrow set of possibilities. However, the canvas of expression that Westerners have reserved for themselves is broad, complex and nuanced. We African people living in the west have inherited a canvas that is not only narrow, but skewed, and by design unfinished.

My obsession has been to seek out the missing elements, identify them and then place them on this unfinished canvas. As a life mission, I have been using the camera to broaden the scope of this narrow identity — to peer beyond the abyss in search of a more complete, complex and nuanced image of myself.

In the ’60s I began, in my home state of Alabama, to seek out images of decency, dignity and virtuous character, images that were invisible to the image-makers in the media. Since then, I ventured beyond our national borders to look for representations of myself in Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Europe.

Copyright Chester Higgins, Jr.

D&B: A lot of your photographs are made in Africa. How and why did you choose Africa as your visual palette?

CH: Because of my relationships in the ’60s with African students at Tuskegee University and my involvement in the Civil Rights Movements, the idea of traveling to Africa became a reality. Taking that journey so far from the United States and risking living among strangers seemed less frightening to this 25-year-old than remaining here. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that I was not traveling to Africa to see the animals. The change in physical setting gave me distance from issues of race and allowed me to appreciate the fullness of African humanity.

Being from a small town, I wasn’t comfortable in urban settings and set out to travel alone into small villages. Instincts, honed from my southern background, came in handy deciding which strangers to bring close to me and which ones to stay away from. My style of working was to be a wandering student, make friends and live with people. My goal was become a witness to daily routines, much like a fly on the wall.

D&B: Do you have a philosophical approach to your work?
CH: Behind every thing is an energy, a spirit, an essence that gives it existence. For me, photography is a means to appreciate the many manifestations of my collective self. The camera is my vehicle of exploration. In capturing images that make my heart smile, I’m collecting external mirrors of myself.

The portrait, for me, highlights what is visually apparent. Yet, I’m interested in more than what meets the eye. What I find most interesting is the spirit within. It is this spirit that I try to recognize and render. I seek to produce a photograph that presents the obvious, sometimes the ordinary, but goes further to reveal what’s hidden and makes the subject extraordinary.

Copyright Chester Higgins, Jr.

D&B: Can you give an example of how you work?
CH: One early morning in the northern town of Tamale in Ghana, I took a walk to the local bus station. I lingered, leaning against the wall and watching the rush as people jumped onto and off open busses. Using the camera lens, I scanned and waited, and then among the throng, this girl appeared along side her older sister. Using body language, I asked her to stop so that I could photograph her. She complied. Because of her age and spirit, she reminded me of my daughter, left behind in Brooklyn. When I noticed her plucked eyebrows, I suddenly imagined her in the center of a big loving family.

D&B: Your recent exhibition at New York University, “Stars of Ethiopia” highlights the fact that for the past ten years you’ve traveled yearly to Ethiopia for six-week shooting trips. Why?

CH: My love and passion for Ethiopia is a product of several decades of exposure. Ethiopia’s ancient history, culture and diverse faiths continue to amaze me. But I find that in the minds of most Europeans and members of the African Diaspora, the awareness of this rich culture is absent.

Each year, I explore new avenues for visual inquiry. My curiosity and discoveries continue to bring a freshness to the subject of Ethiopia for me. The enthusiasm that I felt on my first visit in 1973 continues today, some forty visits later.

Copyright Chester Higgins, Jr.

D&B: What is the greatest reward that you get from building your own photography projects?

CH: Confidence and satisfaction. The fact that I can develop a visual project, execute it, and bring it into a form others can appreciate. The first enjoyment is purely creative; the second enjoyment comes from creating a visual vehicle that allows me to provide new information.

D&B: How do you get your funding to do your personal projects?

CH: In the beginning, grants were helpful or fundraising from supporters who shared my vision. Sometimes, the only option is to finance the project yourself. For me, the money comes from several sources, including savings from my job at The New York Times, earnings from freelance portrait shoots and my stock photography sales, income from speaking, and revenue from selling gallery prints. I remind photographers that shooting weddings pays green. That’s green that you can be saved and applied to your personal work.

Copyright Chester Higgins, Jr.

D&B: What is the greatest asset that photographers in the African continent and those in the African Diaspora can share? Do you see similarities in their challenges?

CH: Knowledge of each other, their issues, and aspirations. The overriding challenge for all is how to make a living and get exposure for your work.

The web has provided photographers with a forum that did not exist five years ago. We can all benefit from networking in a world community of like-minded positive and resourceful thinkers. From this interchange will arise new opportunities. This forum can become a mentoring platform as well as an exchange of ideas and a means of developing reciprocal relationships.

D&B: As a photojournalist, why do you think western news media choose to portray mostly negative issues when it comes to Africa?

CH: The western news media is made up of people who are not really interested in Africa; they are influenced by the perceptions of 20th century journalists, who themselves held anti-African agendas. The face of Africa is portrayed mostly as disaster voyeurism, reinforcing the sad and disappointing aspects of African societies. Western media reinforces the label of African people as undeserving, therefore legitimizing aggressive anti-African economic and war policies.

Western journalists fail to appreciate the complexity of the African societies; they prefer to see the continent through the lens of corruption, war, and devastation. This is not the full story. More and more journalists of conscience are refusing to buy into this paradigm, but as yet their voices are rarely heard.

Read part 2 of this interview where Chester shares his thoughts on business, social media, publishing your work and more. Plus see some of Chester’s color photography!

See all photographer interviews on Dodge & Burn.

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