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One Photographer's Mission: African-American Culture
Richmond Times - Dispatch (Virginia)



Dec. 19--With the arrogance of youth, Chester Higgins asked photographer P.H. Polk if he could borrow his camera.

"I was a fool," Higgins said.

But Polk, a portrait photographer who captured on film such legends as Booker T. Washington, obliged. He gave the Tuskegee University student a quick lesson and then handed over his camera.

Higgins knew then he would follow in his mentor's footsteps and leave his own mark in the field of photography.

"I have a mission," Higgins said. "I have to create these images no one else can see."

A staff photographer at The New York Times since 1975, Higgins has been documenting African-American culture for 33 years. He saves up his vacation to travel for weeks at a time to Egypt, Ethiopia, Brazil, Grenada and Haiti.

The images he makes often are showcased in museums. Some of the latest to tour the country are part of the exhibit "Invoking the Spirit: Worship Traditions in the African World." Continuing at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia through Feb. 28, "Invoking the Spirit" explores worship practices across ethnic, national, cultural and religious boundaries.

"He is a stunning artist," said Stacy Burrs, the museum's board chairman. "People may know too little about religion in the African diaspora. We know what happens in America, but do we know about Brazil and Africa?"

The exhibit, which features 95 photographs, has been touring the country for 12 years. Higgins' photographic essay documents the vitality and diversity of the global African religious experience, from baptisms to healing ceremonies.

"I hope when people see the exhibit they make a big discovery," Higgins said during a recent telephone interview. "Religion is a very personal thing, and we all worship in different ways. But even though it's something different, there's a kinship there. We are all finding a path to God."

These paths lead visitors from one room to the next, through a narrow hallway and into a large family room at the museum. Poster-size photos of African Jews blowing traditional musical instruments, a cleansing ritual involving popcorn, and priestesses making offerings to Yemanja (the deity of the sea) demand a close look.

Higgins, 60, has captured myriad other religious scenes, including a Muslim making his noon prayers in Ethiopia, a procession of virgins at the Drobo Festival in Ghana, a priest at the Shrine of Mistress Erzulie (the spirit of love) in Haiti and the temple of Luxor in Egypt. Most photos were taken from the 1970s to the 1990s.

"In some of these places it's so remote that if anything happened to me it would be years before they knew about it in New York," said Higgins, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Betsy. "But I'm on a mission of the spirit. I've been captivated with traveling and seeing how other people live in the world."

He's often surprised by what he witnesses. While visiting Haiti one year, he watched a priest eat double-edged razor blades as part of a healing ceremony. Higgins stayed the night at the priest's home to make sure he survived.

"He was fine the next day," Higgins said. "It was incredible to see. I'm embraceful of all things the creator has made."

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