An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines:
The first part of the book addresses your childhood memories, basic values and the importance of family ("Within the Blood"); the second half follows the spiritual awakening of the African experience ("Water of Change"). How did you conceptualize the very specific journey from the emotional ties of youth to the life-changing connections of ancestry?
Chester Higgins:The sequence of Echo of the Spirit reflects my professional and personal growth as a individual and as a artist. At age nine, a supernatural event bonded my heart and soul to the spirit and all things spiritual. When I first picked up the camera, it was as a love tool, to capture my beloved older relatives. In 1968, when my work became more politically focused, the camera became a political tool to protect my people from the constant media image of a people in crisis. My life mission is to compile a photographic encyclopedia of the life and times of the people of African descent. Since then, my life and my mission has been one. It
has been my desire to look into the
meaning of our present and the historical
existence of my people and to discover and document in photographs the many facets of our living. From 1967 Ė 1971, my camera focused on the African American experience. After my first journey to East Africa in 1971, I enlarged that scope to include my distant cousins in African countries. The spirit gives me direction on my projects. Because our lives are changing so rapidly, I feel the urgency to document traditions found in African American culture as well as traditions on the African continent.
Your photographs of the South reflect the spirit of the culture, those thoughtful faces etched by personal experiences, both tragic and joyful. How difficult was it to limit your choices, considering the wealth of material?
Editing is always difficult. I have a lot to pull from, yet less than one tenth of one percent of my images have, to date, been published. I try to use just the few right images on any given subject. Iíd like to think that the other images will find a home in future projects.
In 1970, you mentioned that the media showed no positive images of black people and you set out to change this perception. Have you accomplished this goal with your work? Is there more to do?
The media is made up of people. Some are intellectually narrow, emotionally insecure and fearful while others are open, secure and less threatened by differences. All of us are susceptible to media influences. In my work, I offer another point of view ó a more sympathetic and humane view of the life of people of color. My images wonít sweep away the negative stereotypes out there, but they do confront them by broadening the visual diet available to us. Until no images are produced that degrade us, then there is significant work yet to be done.
Often the text adds another dimension to your images, especially in the struggle for Civil Rights and during your trip to Africa. Have you used the image/narrative combination before and will you use it in future books?
In my book Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (Bantam 1994), essays gave background to each section. In other books (Black Woman, Elder Grace) I used quotations from those being photographed. Echo of the Spirit is a departure, the text is about my journey of consciousness and identity.
Much of the text is personally revelatory, as you share family memories and personal insights. Was this easy to do, or difficult?
Some of the very personal revelatory text was painful to write. Itís easy to paint a picture of the best in us. Itís not so easy to balance that picture with our weaknesses as well. We all live within life and life is sometimes an up experience and sometimes a down experience. But even when itís less than what we want, I believe that each day above ground is a great day!
Do you believe that our families (our parents, certainly) define our potential in the world? If so, what of those who donít have the solace of family?
Children respond to how they are raised. Motivation and support is key. In my book I identify several individuals outside my immediate family who helped me discover and develop my potential.
Once you decided on your career, what were the difficulties that you faced? Did you pay a personal price in pursuit of your career?
All difficulties play a role in development. Yes, we may think that they are unfair, and they are. My mentor, Romare Bearden, was fond of saying that, ďthe greater the limitation, the more creative we have to become, to overcome it."
What is the role of spirituality in your life and how has it defined you, including your early calling as a boyhood preacher in New Brocton, Alabama?
I have complete faith in the spirit. The spirit leads me, it protects me, it makes all things possible for me. If the spirit wants me to be able to do such and such thing, then the spirit will make it possible for me. Some of my projects happen not because I know what the result will be but because I feel that I am directed by the spirit to travel that particular path with the belief that in time clarity will come.
How did Africa change your perceptions of yourself and your place in the world?
Traveling to Africa and living in a society where ninety-nine percent of the people look like me took away the feeling of being a minority. In Africa, I became a member of the majority. For the first time I could enjoy normalcy in the majority that looked like me and was me. I no longer felt like an outsider.
Can you talk about the power of black and white photographs, the visual impact of contrast that stimulates the imagination?
I believe that black and white photographs are a purer form of art and convey human emotions most effectively.
Your scenic photographs are riveting, both lonely and soulful; yet each of them challenges me to really look, to enter the landscape. What are you searching for through the lens of the camera when you shoot such images?
Existence is an awesome event. I try to capture the "signature of the spirit" in people and things. Earth is our home. It was here before our arrival and will continue after our departure. To be able to commune with the landscape of nature is to commune with the spirit. I enjoy it very much.
Are you currently working on another collection? If so, what is the theme?
Iím constantly working on several projects at a time. My policy is not to talk about them. When they are finished, then they will announce their arrival.
What advice can you offer to those who have dreams of becoming a photographer/artist like you?
On my website
www.chesterhiggins.com I encourage young photographers in a essay entitled ďReflections", in which I offer advice on developing the skills of seeing.
CHESTER HIGGINS has been on the staff of The New York Times since 1975. His photographs have also appeared in Artnews, Newsweek, Fortune, Essence, and a number of other magazines and have been featured on CBS Sunday Morning and on several PBS and ABC television programs. He has had one-man shows at the International Center of Photography, the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of African Art, and the Schomburg Center and is the author of Echo of the Spirit, Elder Grace, Feeling the Spirit, Sometime Ago, The Drums of Life, and Black Woman. He lives in Brooklyn, New York..
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Chester Higgins, author of Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer's Journey (see accompanying review), about his book via email for curledup.com. This text is the property of Luan Gaines and the author for whom it is intended. No part may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2004.