Portrait: Meeting Chester Higgins, Jr. ~ Award-Winning NYT Photographer and “Anthropologist With A Camera”

I spent Easter weekend in New York. This time of year always holds special meaning to me. Not just as a Christian, but also because it symbolizes a period of change, transformation and hope. And even though in my early days I hated going to Catechism school and would fall asleep in church, later I became a very spiritual teen and adult. I believe in signs, hidden meanings, bursts of divine intuition. And I know it is that belief that keeps putting me at the right place, at the right time.

This past Saturday was one of those times. I had the honor of meeting and spending an entire afternoon at the home of award-winning, pre-eminent African American photographer of the African Diaspora: Chester Higgins, Jr.

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Portrait of A Photographer: Chester Higgins, Jr., Award-winning NYT Photographer | Photo by (c) Lebawit Girma/LilyLilyImages

Aside from working as a Staff Photographer at the New York Times since 1975, Chester Higgins’ photography has been published in every prestigious publication you can think of – as well as displayed across prestigious museums, including a permanent collection at MOMA. He’s also been the subject of two PBS documentaries (An American Photographer: Chester Higgins Jr. and BrotherMen). And let’s see, this is what his publication list looks like: Newsweek, New York Times Sunday Magazine, Look, Life, Fortune, Ebony, Essence, Black Enterprise, The Village Voice, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, and many others. He’s also received numerous grants, from the Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, The International Center of Photography and the National Endowment for The Arts, among others.

In addition to the above, however, what was exciting for me in meeting Higgins, is that for the past 20 plus years, he has focused on and photographed Africa and people of African descent. The same subject matter that so often draws me to my camera, and has inspired me in the search of my role in life in general: roots, culture, and environment. Looking back, even the admission essay I wrote that got me into a top graduate school, was on culture and identity – my own, that is. Who was I? What was my true identity – Ethiopian by birth and parents only? Or Ivorian after 17 years in West Africa? What was my true nationality and true sense of spirit? Could I just state, when asked, that I am just African, born and raised?

Girl from Tamale, Ghana | Photo by (c) Chester Higgins, Jr.

So you see, Chester Higgins and I seemed to have a few things in common (if I even dare compare myself): a love for my country of birth and heritage, Ethiopia (which Higgins has visited over decades), a passion for African history, people and identity, and a need to understand our own roles in conveying that powerful heritage to others. And even, a common path of capturing musicians of African descent – for him, jazz greats like Dizzie Gillespie – and for me, Reggae artists, old and new. And then of course, we have that other common element: photography, an art which he has truly mastered, and I’ve grown into since 2008.

“STARS OF ETHIOPIA:” THE EXHIBIT

Last year, when I was first introduced to Higgins via email, I was elated. We exchanged a few emails and eventually, a phone conversation. When I asked how I could discern a pattern in my photos – a common theme – he told me it may take time, but for now “shoot what makes your heart smile,” pay attention to what that is. I took those words along with me on my next journey to the Caribbean, remembering, noticing. What did make me smile?

So when the opportunity came this year to view Higgins’ latest exhibit – a 24-hr outdoor display at New York University’s Kimmel Center, consisting of 13 portraits of Ethiopians and entitled “Stars of Ethiopia – I knew I  had to catch it upon my return from Jamaica.

Only a couple of weeks left to the exhibit, I contacted Higgins, asking if he would be in the city over Easter weekend, and if he could meet with me at the exhibit. And the response I received was an invitation to his home.

Captured by Higgins from 2007-2009, the 13 portraits represent Ethiopian people from various parts of the country. They show the diversity of Ethiopia. And through each face, we are transported into that person’s spirit and time – from their accessories (all their own) to their gaze and to the lighting Higgins used to bring out their true selves.

Chester Higgins' "Stars of Ethiopia" Outdoor Exhibit at NYU's Kimmel Center - March 1 through May 8, 2011. Poster-size portraits are displayed 24 hours for passersby to take in. Now into its last two weeks - the exhibit still draws pedestrians. In fact I witnessed several stop and discuss, or even pose for shots in front of the portraits. As an Ethiopian, I was proud to see my country and people displayed in Manhattan for all to see and learn. And as a photographer, it was a feast given the details - both technical and artistic - in each photograph.

Probably my favorite of all the portraits - perhaps because I could relate to that facial expression and demeanor; but also because of the emotion embodied in those eyes - so authentic I felt I was standing right in front of the individual, in person.

A group of us viewed all 13 portraits to our hearts’ content- I’d say for almost a good hour as we dissected each one, especially interesting to us as Ethiopians. We laughed at the “modern Ethiopian” portrait – it was so classic. You could find one of him in Washington, DC, we thought.  He turned out to  be their driver from the city, Addis Ababa. We also loved the “Amhara Woman” – such an authentic depiction, she reminded me of my mother, who is Amhara. Even my nephew couldn’t stop staring at that particular one, wanting to reach for her (now that, was quite interesting!).

After dissecting the photos, posing in front of them, and watching passersby stopping, stunned by the poster-size portraits – it was time to meet their creator. I set out for Higgins’ home.

CONVERSATION WITH A “HISTORY MAKER”

We were six adults in a cozy island kitchen – including Higgins and his wife, Betsy Kissam, who is also his editor and writer. Seated around a table covered with desserts and wine, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, we listened to Higgins, asked questions, talked among ourselves and laughed for the next three and a half hours. It was like hanging out at my favorite professor’s house. None of us had previously met in one room, and yet it felt like we had. We all shared a common interest: Africa.

A fascinating three hours chock-full of anecdotes from Higgins’ experiences growing up as a young boy in Alabama, to traveling to Africa for the first time in his 20s to capture African leaders and learn of his roots. Travels that took him west to east, to spending nights on the Sahara desert floor (“did you know the floor moves at night? Every creature that lies dormant wakes in the night, including snakes!” he said) while he followed an NGO and captured that unique story that led him to being offered a position at the NYT in the 70s. Not to mention, his numerous trips to Ethiopia over the years, camping out in Lalibela and many other villages, to document Ethiopian people and Ethiopia’s role in history.  Chester Higgins was clearly not only ahead of his time, but driven by the quest for identity and historical knowledge.

His initial bout into photography, he said, came from a desire to have authentic portraits of his family, of the folks in his community in rural Alabama – a way to show the beauty and dignity of African Americans and people of African descent, and preserve that forever. Not that negative, unruly image propagated by the media, but the one he saw day-to-day growing up in a community. From there, it grew into a fascination of African culture and politics – after interacting with African students at Tuskegee University and reading books by Senghor, Nkrumah and other notable Africans.

He had a message to pass on – about the wealth of African culture and the value of people of African descent – and his medium, was photography.

His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia (1973) | Photo by Chester Higgins, Jr.

Imagine being born in Alabama in 1947, and growing up in one of the most racist times in America. Imagine having the courage, after college, to leave and travel to an unknown continent – Africa – on your own, to discover your history, learn and capture the positive side of Africa to show the rest of the world.  Imagine meeting Idi Amin Dada and exchanging jokes with him. And having a camera. These were the stories we were absorbing that afternoon. With mentors like P.H. Polk and Arthur Rothstein, among others, Higgins learned photography from the best (he noted there were no photography courses in Alabama at the time).

Higgins told us of his first encounter with Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie I, in Addis Ababa in 1973 during the OAU Summit. He didn’t know who it was then, but Higgins said it was one of those rare times when he lowered his camera, just to take in this moment – this short man, who emanated such presence and authority and seemed much more dominant than any of the other tall men surrounding him.  As he watched him pass, Higgins said he told himself that he had to find out who that was. And when he did, he was stunned to learn that that was Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, Lion of Judah. One of Africa’s top leaders and significant figures in history.

I found his personal first impression of the Emperor fascinating because it was very similar to what my own parents have told me about His Majesty. Both my parents knew the Emperor intimately – as it happens – and in different capacities, and only those who were close to the Emperor, and lived in his time, knew what he was really like. (As a side note, Higgins advised me to record my parents’ stories of this time; I had thought about it before but I definitely plan on doing so this year. These are first-hand stories I could never obtain anywhere- just as Higgins’ stories were unique.)

Bob Marley | (c) Chester Higgins, Jr.

“So, why Jamaica?” Higgins asked me that afternoon. And turned around to the other two guests to tell them “she has some great photographs from Jamaica.” (OK, I will admit that that side comment is now forever engrained in my brain!)

Well, it’s not a boyfriend, I joked, to a room full of laughs. I explained that what drew me to Jamaica was actually the Ethiopia link – as well as  cultural curiosity, and a desire to capture a land and people, quite possibly the only one in the Caribbean, who accept and say that they are of African descent. People – like Rastafarians – who know about my country, about Africa and its significance. Or the Maroons who preserve and celebrate their West African roots. Going to Jamaica, I also felt like I had something to contribute as well, aside from capturing their land and people to show the positive side of their world – like sharing my own heritage and knowledge of Ethiopia. I was from the very land they wanted to see, and “go back to” and I had the privilege to grow up in Africa, from east to west. I felt a responsibility to share my experience, and I enjoy it. More than once, a Jamaican would tell me that I was the first Ethiopian – and even at times, the first African – they had ever met. They were humbled, happy, and they welcomed me, shook my hand. And through that link and the words shared, my photographs followed.

Higgins shared his own time discovering Rastafarians, and recalled capturing the late, great Bob Marley, including his famous photograph of the icon’s casket the day of his funeral.

What would he be if not a photographer? An anthropologist, most likely, Higgins said. I could see that, especially in academia – someone of his passion and knowledge of Africa would touch and inspire so many students here in the U.S.

HIGGINS ON PHOTOGRAPHY AND LIGHTING

I already knew that Chester Higgins often says that “a camera does not a picture make” – one of his own very first lessons as a young photographer.

That afternoon, he briefly shared thoughts on the technical aspects of photography- more particularly, on the importance of light in creating an image. I knew this – especially as a concert photographer – but had not thought of it in terms of its role in portraits, and even in the daytime.  One must be able to feel the time of day just from looking at a photograph, Higgins said, quoting what one of his mentors had said to him years ago. “I made sure, from then on, to make lighting my mistress,” he added.

Ethiopia: Lalibela, Church of Bet St. Giyorgis | Photo by (c) Chester Higgins, Jr.

I felt alive, enriched, inspired. My whole life I have thought about culture and in the past three years, I picked up professional photography. I felt the need to pass on stories, views of other worlds, to those who traveled so little or to simply share cultural differences and appreciate them. And here was someone who had managed to show the world the richness of African culture, the dignity of African people – whether from a city or a poor village – and the depth of our traditions. Someone who understood the nuances of my heritage, and had mastered the art form I love.

I could have easily stayed another three hours. It felt like meeting someone of the stature of Oprah Winfrey.  OK, before you say anything – I’m not an Oprah groupie and have not watched her show religiously by any means, but I do admire people who like her grew up in a tough and impossible climate, broke away from it or survived it by having dreams and goals, only to be where they are today and to be successfully passing on their message via their chosen medium.

Higgins is now finishing his memoir, in the editing phase with his wife’s help. Now that, I cannot wait to read.

THE END OF AN ENLIGHTENING AFTERNOON

It was 6:30pm, three hours later, and my phone was ringing. I had dinner reservations at 7pm – and at 6:30 I was still at Higgins’ home, engrossed in conversation.  So the afternoon had to end abruptly, and I rushed call for a taxi. But I knew I could not leave without taking Higgins’ photograph. He was happy to let me shoot him. “You tell me where, you’re the photographer!” he said.  That’s right, I was, wasn’t I!

I turned around and saw him standing in the doorway, two books in his left hand. He looked majestic, master of his castle and his craft. So I said “right there is perfect.”  I took a couple, and then his lovely wife Betsy had the brilliant idea to go get his hat.  There I was, standing on Chester Higgins’ front door, trying to snap the best portrait I could of one of the best photographers in the world and do his spirit justice, in a matter of minutes, while the sound of the taxicab’s engine roared in my ears.

An Afternoon with Chester Higgins, Jr. | (c) Lebawit Girma

As I lowered my lens, finally, and we said our goodbyes, he handed me a copy of “Echo of The Spirit – A photographer’s journey.” I was humbled by such a generous gesture. And so ended a magical afternoon.  (I’ll skip the part where I was so excited by this visit that I forgot my coat at Higgins’ house and had to go back and get it the next day!).

With Chester Higgins, Jr., at the end of a fascinating afternoon at his home, and proudly holding my gift, "Echo of The Spirit - A Photographer's Journey." A fascinating read.

LESSONS LEARNED

When I asked Chester if I could blog about this amazing experience of meeting him at his home, save the personal anecdotes, he said to me: “What distinguishes living is our experiences. What we bring to the moment, what the moments brings to us and the synthesis of this mixture is what makes living a notable and sometimes worthwile event.”

Worthwhile it was, and live I did that afternoon. Putting aside all the travel anecdotes and the debates on life or African politics, I took away two main things from my encounter with Chester Higgins:  first, to be as generous with my time, talent and life experience with aspiring photographers who approach me for advice, because part of the meaning of life is to give back and to lift others on the way; and second, to focus on mastering the light aspect of photography even more, and as Chester said, “to make lighting my mistress”… well, in my case, my master! 🙂

For more on Chester Higgins, Jr.’s amazing photography and numerous achievements please visit his website, detailed in both images and theory, and also listing all of his available books.


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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning, Ethiopian-American travel writer, photographer and author of several Caribbean guidebooks for Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize, Moon Belize Cayes, and Moon Dominican Republic (October 2016). Her work focuses on Caribbean culture and adventure, and has been published in AFAR, CNN Travel, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and Every Day With Rachael Ray, among many others. Lily is also the 2016 recipient of the Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for her Caribbean coverage, from the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Lily calls herself a “culture-holic”–she speaks four languages fluently and has lived in Cote d’Ivoire, England, Jamaica, Belize, the Dominican Republic and traveled to some 30+ countries around the world. Last but not least, she is a former corporate attorney who ditched her Washington DC office for the road in 2009 to pursue her dream of becoming a storyteller.
Lily holds a Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish (summa cum laude) from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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8 Comments

  1. Steven 29 April, 2011 at 7:20 PM #

    Unbelievable work Lily!! You really brought the meeting you had to life!! The stories of HIs Majesty really is touching and the pictures you posted are awesome, especially the Lalibella Pic, it looks like painting!! Mi soon Come ONE DAY!! JAH LOVE!

  2. Steven 29 April, 2011 at 7:21 PM #

    Also the reason you chose Jamaica was really sweet!

  3. Seveen 1 May, 2011 at 10:34 AM #

    this blog makes me happy

  4. lorraine 1 May, 2011 at 11:40 AM #

    Great story Lily! Must have been an awesome day for you! I can just imagine how great it must be to meet your mentor like this.
    I love how he said you take great photos AND I love how you say you aspire to uplift new photogs as well ;))
    One love

  5. Jackie 1 May, 2011 at 12:07 PM #

    Wonderful day Lily…and what an excited and fabulous experience for you.

    This memorable day will most likely be the most inspiring stepping stone into your journey with photography!

    Thanks for sharing… 🙂

  6. lilyg 4 May, 2011 at 11:21 AM #

    Thank you so much everyone for your kind comments. I am excited that you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed living and re-living it by writing!

    Meeting Chester Higgins was most definitely one of my best moments of 2011!

    Life is all about inspiration, and learning from the people that are placed in our path.

  7. Ed Worrell 22 July, 2015 at 5:35 PM #

    Have always loved the work and the spirit of Mr. Higgins’ work..Your day with him must have been a wonderful experience. Your sharing of that day with us was a real gift. Thank you

  8. Lebawit Lily Girma 6 August, 2015 at 3:15 PM #

    Hi Ed, thank you for reading and for your kind words. Yes, it was a real treat to meet Mr. Higgins.

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