The Eye of Horus is an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. It is the symbol that Chester Higgins, Jr. has chosen as a symbol for his website. The spirit permeates a lifetime of work from an iconic photographer who has interpreted generations of Americans and Africans for nearly 50 decades.
The spirit of African people worldwide has never been extinguished, and today, with our passionate self-discovery and reawakening traditions, the flame burns ever more brightly. No matter where we live, we face daily pressures and we share many of the same ambitions. Photography has been my tool to discover, confront, examine, and depict-through dispersion and connection-the existence of people of African descent.
The power of his eye to interpret the spirit is singular in American photography and history. That power is ancient and it is transformative. It is the northern light falling upon an age in American history, announcing the new epoch which was, in fact, the ancient one. The significance of this power within each of our persons is not lost upon Chester:
The eye is the most sacred thing and the eye revels the soul. Part of my approach when I am looking at eyes is I see myself as a diver into a pool into the soul and the spirit so that you get layers and layer, textures and textures of the person, the moment, the place.
Spirituality is about finding ones place and peace within the awesomeness of Nature. Spirituality embraces the oneness of life, ‘the us.’ Spirituality is all about seeing yourself in the continuum of reality while materialism is about stepping outside of ‘the we’ and anchoring yourself into the vortex of one.
Chester Higgins Jr.’s presence is one filled with grace though pronounced with clarity and knowing. He seems as perched from a tree of life looking upon and surveying the landscape. His assertions are not so much sounds as knowings elegantly stated. When asked if he uses Samsung or iPhone for his work these days, Chester answers, “It doesn’t matter what I have in my hand. The piece of equipment can only do what my eye tells it to do.” He adds an exclamation to his passion, “The moment when the photo is taken is when my heart smiles. And that is when I make the picture.”
I asked him after nearly 50 years working to realize the beauty of a vision, what is doing these days? His voice is filled with love, a sweet quality of curiosity, wisdom, and kindness in equal parts.
[My wife and I] do Tai Chi to stay in shape. A lot of my work has been in villages. If I am walking on even terrain and walking from stone to stone, it requires a certain strength. I started doing yoga to create balance and strength. There have been a few times when it has saved my life.” He has transformed himself into an instrument for his labor of love.
My wife and I have been doing a study on ancient, sacred studies about divinity is an African invention and it began on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia into Nubia. The belief in a sky god is an African invention. Once in Egypt, it was bifurcated into religion. That has become Christianity, Islam. and Judaism. The Nile has been the corridor of spiritual thinking. The short of it is to keep peoples’ attention focused on the Blue Nile.
“Whenever there is injustice, there will be resistance.” ~~ Chester Higgins Jr.
I ask the question which is natural at this stage of his craft – that of an unquestionable master. I ask if he has been the eye of Horus for his people. I am thinking of a story relayed in Echo of the Spirit, an autobiographical book he has written with his wife. There is a story in the opening chapter, called “Chosen by the Spirit”, in which he talks of being ‘awakened’ by a spirit in 1955 as a small 9-year-old boy:
After a moment, its eyes opened – light brown eyes that looked at me with an intensity I had never known before. It began to walk very slowly toward me with those outstretched hands. The room rattled with crackling energy. Who was this being coming toward me? Could it be an alien? But my spirit reassured me it was safe. — Chester Higgins Jr. in Echo of the Spirit: A Visual Journey by Chester Higgins Jr. with Betsy Kissam
I wonder if that spirit might have been Horus. Spirits do not know time or limits in the energy spectrums from visions to so-called reality, it is all a singular experience of living. “That’s a good question. I never thought of it that way” he says ever thoughtfully, “Everything vibrates between certainty and doubt. I had a friend who did a sculpture of me as Mercury (the Roman god). That was his way of dealing with what I do with my work. I guess I see myself of the Horus sailing through the celestial ways. You see the eye of Horus sailing off the sailboat. You have the solar part and the moon part of the eye of Horus. Mine is the moon eye riding on the celestial sailboat.”
Along with Gordon Parks and Howard Bingham, Chester Higgins Jr.’s work has captured the quintessential American photograph and created a new perspective on African souls in our current epoch. Their work has created a new paradigm for how the world sees us but more importantly how we see ourselves.
He took his first trip to Ethiopia in 1973. He followed the news that African heads of state were gathering for an Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa. He met and photographed emperor Haile Selassie and other leaders at the historic meeting. Inspired by a calm sense of self he found among the Ethiopian people, he returned the following year to see other parts of the country.
I continue to ask my questions as Chester graciously engages.
This is an unfair question because the nature of your work reflects a spirit that is generous and unassuming. Further, you have lived a life of dreams. But what has been your most memorable trip and why?
In ECHO OF THE SPIRIT, I talk about my first trip to Ethiopia and seeing Emperor Haile Selassie. That trip remains the most memorable and is the reason why I have returned to Ethiopia annually for 20 years. I enjoy experiencing the four most important traits of my people, which is our decency, dignity, virtuous character and our love for faith.
It has taken me decades to get closer to the people and the culture, I know I’m an outsider. As I learn more, I dive deeper in this water. I feel like our society is not as well grounded. We get our reference points from artificiality. Most of us are far removed from a sense of being connected to nature.
Some of your work is iconic. You made your way from a town in Alabama to the NYC in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights movement and amidst significant shifts in American and world history. In fact, in can be argued that many trappings of our NOW moment come from that period in history. You have taken iconic photos of Hallie Selasi, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Alvin Ailey, Rosa Parks, Amiri Baraka, Nelson Mandela, all great personalities who have defined a generation. We are at another moment with many of those trappings. Civil Rights: Black Lives Matter. New Age: Hippie Movement. Martin Luther King: Barack Obama (a realization of a vision). Donald Trump: Richard Nixon. Unending wars. Mass Protests: The Resistance. Do you think American society has evolved? Do we go lower or higher from here?
Whenever there is injustice, there will be resistance. The human being has an innate sense of worthiness and rebels against any outside force that seeks to diminish their worthiness. Until no person of African descent is unfairly targeted because of their color, the fight against oppression must continue.
Since the 1970’s, you have spent a great deal of time in Egypt and Ethiopia, at one time and point travelling to Ethiopia once a year, every year. Those are our first civilizations where original man, our first Christianity comes from and the only nation never occupied (Ethiopia) still stands. Is “the spirit” stronger there? Is there an inverse relationship between spirituality of the world and American materialism? What is your attraction to that part of the world?
From what we have learned from stone etchings in Egypt, the earliest scriptures from the tomb of Unas around 2500 BCE, that the world of divinity is a metaphysical concept born out of the sacred dreams of ancient African people along the Blue Nile River. In our modern times, these earliest scriptures of spirituality formed the basis of Abrahamic faiths and these teachings have been embraced by believers in half the world.
Your love of the diaspora and her people burns bright from your work, like an African sun. It could be stated that has been your life’s work. What are some of the common characteristics of Black people around the world?
Spirituality is about finding ones place and peace within the awesomeness of Nature. Spirituality embraces the oneness of life, ‘the us.’ Materialism is to embrace things outside of yourself, trying to shoe horn things of Nature into personal walls of ownership. Spirituality is all about seeing yourself in the continuum of reality while materialism is about stepping outside of ‘the we’ and anchoring yourself into the vortex of one.
My attraction to Africa is because I want to discover the fullness of myself, which means for me to seek out the many dimensions of my people and history. With the camera, I have sought to discover exactly who I am and where do I belong.
Through his work, Chester Higgins Jr. embraces the quality of African spirits, that of African possibility and limitless human possibility. He learned an important lesson from his beloved uncle as a young man- “It’s important to make a mark on life unless you die undeclared.” He has kept charge of the keep given by his elders and entrusted by ancestors.
It is no wonder or perhaps it is with that wonder that Chester Higgins Jr. has become the Eye of Horus in the modern age, showing us a view of ourselves by ourselves outside the Hollywood Industrial complex that seeks to distort, obfuscate and minimize.
Wisdom can be a welcome companion of old age. Those who find Wisdom become the beacons for the rest of us. We are attracted by their peacefulness and the vast reservoir of understanding they have acquired through years of living. As enigmatic as it seems, Wisdom is clearly recognizable. We see it, we feel it, and we want to be part of it.
~~Wisdom of Age chapter from EchoSpirit, by Chester Higgins Jr. with Betsy Kissam
Finally, after a pleasant conversation, like two souls sitting on the moon and gazing into the stars, I ask Chester if he had a home in any of the African cities he has traveled where would he build that castle? He speaks without skipping a beat, “I would have a home in Senegal off the coast because my ancestors are from there going back four generations. I always felt the pull from Senegal. When I had my African ancestry done, it is 100% mandingo from those tribes. If it was in the East, I would take the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. But I always tell everyone if you are going to Africa for the first time, go to Ghana. The people are very religious and warm and loud.”
Well, I’ll say it now loudly our Eye of Horus, your vision shines brilliantly through generations who see the truth from antiquity. We are awakened to that reality. Hotep.
I am the child who traverseth the road of Yesterday. I am Today for untold nations and peoples. I am the One who protected you for millions of years. — from the Sacred Book of Coming Forth, Kemet (Ancient Egypt), quoted from the epilogue of ECHO OF THE SPIRIT Echo of the Spirit: A Visual Journey by Chester Higgins Jr. with Betsy Kissam.