A couple of weeks ago, my mother told me we’d be having dinner with my uncle and his friends at one of my favorite restaurants in Addis called Antica. Prior to the dinner, my mother mentioned that my uncle’s friend was a New York Times photographer. Ok, no big deal. Just going to have dinner with someone who documents for a world-renowned news outlet. Well, we all met together at a meeting point down the road. That’s when I met the photographer Chester Higgins Jr., and his wife Betsy Kissam. I was excited and nervous all at once but I couldn’t tell you exactly why. It wasn’t like I was going in for a job interview but I guess just knowing that this was a man who travels the world with his eyes as the communicating platform of his vision to only be featured in the NEW YORK TIMES, yeah I was intimidated. To elevate my nerves the first thing Higgins said to me was, “I’ve read your blog.” My blog? He had seen my blog! What was my blog compared to the New York Times?! I was giddy, excited, and terrified all at once. Nevertheless, I kept my cool and we all walked to the restaurant together.
Once we arrived we organized our seating at the table for the evening. I was encouraging that Betsy sit with her husband but Higgins insisted that I sit next to him. I was hesitant at first but was very eager to ask several hundred questions about his work.
The first thing we spoke about, Higgins showed me a postcard that featured Lalibela, (a church in northern Ethiopia made from a single stone in the ground) captured at night. It was absolutely magnificent. I haven’t yet to travel to Lalibela but have seen many pictures of this wondrous place. It is easy to say, however, that none of the pictures that I have seen made Lalibela look as magical as Higgins made it look. We started talking about photography and his philosophy behind capturing pictures. It’s amazing that almost everything he said about photography could be a quote or caption that perfectly described his essence. The first treasured piece of knowledge I received from him was this, “I don’t take pictures, I make them.” Wow, ok. This was his motto, his belief that photography for him is about first having the vision in your mind of what you’d like to capture, then proceeding to capture it thereafter. He continued by saying that if you don’t have a vision you start to become desperate to capture whatever you are seeing in the moment. I was mesmerized because I felt that even though I have visions of what I’d like to capture, I definitely feel those instances where I’m just grabbing whatever I can get. That’s not always a bad thing, but I love how methodic he was about his craft. The next gem I received from Higgins was when he told me that he believed photography had two purposes; the first is that he believed it should be used to capture something that needs to be respected, and the second that photography should be used to capture something that needs to be changed. I agreed with him on both levels and told him that I too operate from the same perspective on documentation and sharing what I see with the rest of the world.
Our conversation was jumping all around with Higgins clearly talking more than me because I didn’t want him to stop telling me stories of his travels. At some point I finally asked him what got him interested in photography and this is the magnificent story he shared.
Chester Higgins Jr. grew up in a small town, or village as he said, in Alabama. Growing up as a black man in the south during the Civil Rights Movement, he mostly saw pictures of black people in degrading portrayals; as prostitutes, mug shots, pictures that kept black folks consistently at a subservient level. It wasn’t until he attended Tuskegee Institute, where he met his future mentor in photography, where he began to see different and more familiar presentations of black people. His mentor had taken pictures of the everyday people he encountered that highlighted a dignified and nobler image of black folks that Higgins had only seen in real life. He found this to be his inspiration for photography. He wanted to excel at this craft so that he could take portraits of his relatives and friends and ultimately give them a copy so that they can see the joyous ways that Higgins saw them to be. At this point I was in awe. We spoke about my time in Mississippi and another photographer, by the name of Alysia Burton Steele, who reminded me of the same work Higgins had done early on in his life through a book she recently published called Delta Jewels. There was intention in Higgins’ work that I greatly admired and what I truly believe has allowed him to lead such a fascinating life photographing the most beautiful things in this world.
We continued in our conversation as he talked about what brought him to Ethiopia. He came in the early 1970s where he photographed the late Emperor Haile Selassie. He was fascinated by Ethiopia and subsequently engaged himself with another passion of Egyptology. Since the 1970s he’s been traveling to Ethiopia every year for six weeks capturing almost every crevice and beautiful sight to be seen here. All that he has experienced and what he shared with me in our short engagement overwhelmed me. It was truly an honor to just listen to what Higgins had to say.
But don’t think I didn’t ask tips on what it meant to be a better photographer because oh yes I did. Higgins believed one thing about photography to be absolutely true, light was his mistress. Yes, those were his exact words! He said that he and light always had an ongoing affair and that light is the most important thing when it comes to photography. He and his mistress have worked together to create magical masterpieces. His pictures are an incredible indication of how he uses and treasures the power of light. The way in which he articulated this rule was as if light was a person he knew and greatly respected. I could see how carefully he cherished the natural light of his subjects and how he uses his own light interventions to create divine works of art.
I am truly grateful for the quick yet impactful conversation that I had with Chester Higgins. He has quickly become an idol of mine and someone who has provided me with so much guidance of how it is I share the things I believe need to be respected and changed in the world. There is so much more that I want to say about Higgins but I can’t fit it all into one post. All I can say is, please check out his website and have your own mind blown by all of the amazing places and sites he’s photographed, not to mention some of the most intelligent, genius, and creative people to have walked this earth and that he has had the honor of capturing. Thank you for sharing a moment and a meal with me Mr. Higgins.
All captions and pictures above are copyrighted by Chester Higgins Jr.