Photographer Chester Higgins, Jr. Takes a Spiritual Journey to the Sacred Nile – Our Time Press

ByDavid M. Conte

Feb 18, 2022

In The Sacred Nile, acclaimed photojournalist Chester Higgins, Jr. blends powerful photography and spirituality in a journey illustrating African peoples who have lived along the banks of the African river since ancient times. The book, with texts by writer Betty Kissam, lasted 50 years. “I made about 20 trips to Egypt, 18 trips to Ethiopia and 4 trips to Sudan a year for two to six weeks of field trips,” Higgins, a longtime resident of Fort Greene, told Our TimePress.
Spirituality is an important part of Higgins’ life. Growing up in Alabama during Jim Crow, he was known as a child preacher giving powerful sermons. As an undergraduate at Tuskegee Institute in the 1960s, he discovered the spiritual power of photography. Legendary Tuskegee photographer PH Polk, known for his photographs showing the dignity of African-American life in the rural South of the 1930s, became his mentor. “PH Polk was my first mentor. He put the first camera in my hands,” he said. “I spent a few years guided by his example and under his influence. He represented the best of the Tuskegee school of photographers. Later, his mentors will be photographer Gordon Parks and artist Romare Bearden.
Over the years, Higgins has published wonderful books of photography vividly documenting the African diaspora. This includes Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for People of Africa; Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging; Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian and the Museum for African Art and he has received grants from the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and Andy Warhol Foundation. He has been photographed for Look, Life, Newsweek, Time Fortune, Essence, Ebony and Black Enterprise.
From 1975 to 2014, Higgins was a principal photographer for The New York Times. His photographic style on documenting black lives, whether historical or everyday, is legendary. They are distinctive, remarkable and poignant. “I don’t take pictures, I DO them,” he explained. “My personal mission as a New York Times photographer was to ensure that issues of decency, dignity and virtuous character would always be at the forefront of any image I made of my people.”
Our Time Press recently spoke with Higgins about the sacred Nile and his spiritual journey through the ancient banks.

OTP: You first visited Egypt 50 years ago. Was that the origin of the idea to create this book?

HIGGINS: When I first visited Egypt in 1973, I had no idea until I arrived and saw pyramids, monumental temples and museum artifacts that I realized I was looking at the remains of the greatest African and human experience of all time. I’ve spent over 20 years going back and forth right after the spiritual attraction of this place – the monuments, artifacts and tombs. Just open up and embrace this ancient past. After much study and building up a huge research library, it became clearer to me that there was indeed a book here for me to make and pay homage to our ancestors.

OTP: Why was it important for you to show the beauty and strength of black women in The Sacred Nile?

HIGGINS: The glory of African women has historically been censored in Western civilization and the Bible. We don’t have the imagery in western culture of divine women, but in ancient Egypt this recognition and adoration of divine African women is expressed in stone portraits in so many forms everywhere as well as in paintings underground tombs. It was amazing to see the African woman in all her divine glory and I was so excited to make a photographic record of these messages left thousands of years ago that speak directly to the sacred value of the African woman.

OTP: You reflect on the role of Africans along the Nile in creating spiritual faith. You were a child preacher growing up in Alabama. Has this spirituality added to your ideas about African spirituality?

HIGGINS: Historical records set in stone show that Africans were the first to have a sacred dialogue with the divine. My early spiritual and religious experiences enabled me to recognize ceremonial messages carved into stone walls and columns and to faithfully interrogate their meaning.

OTP: You discuss the ascension of the soul and the fact that Egypt is a nation of faith and temples. How did visiting your first Unas tomb affect you personally?

HIGGINS: Unas’ Tomb is a time capsule. The tomb is 4700 years old and occupies three vaulted underground chambers under a pyramid. Inside, lining the walls of the tomb, is the oldest spiritual expression of all time with over 300 vertical lines of scripture that stretch from floor to ceiling 12 feet. This scripture chiseled in stone speaks of all the religious concepts we know; nature, soul, spirit, faith, a moral compass, life after death and the ascension into heaven of the king’s soul as it is joined with the ENERGY of the cosmos. This tomb proves the ancient sacred agency of the African people. Its very existence proves that religion as we know it rests on the cultural shoulder of ancient Kemet (the black land). Unas is our messenger from the past carrying the old good news to the present.

OTP: Your research has made you an Egyptologist. Who are the historians who influenced your interest in Egyptology?

HIGGINS: I would prefer the description from an independent Egyptological researcher. The historian who ignited my imagination and my love of ancient Egypt is the late Dr. John Henrik Clarke. I would visit him in his personal library on the first floor of his brownstone on Harlem’s Striver’s Row, sitting on the floor and fascinated for hours by his description of ancient Egyptian history. There is still so much to learn. Our people first created civilization, the first to be literate, developed astronomy, mathematics, medicine, agriculture, and built and dedicated monumental structures to worship their God Amen. Over time, their colonnaded architecture, called Empire architecture, spread to Greece, Italy and around the world. We see this architecture among us as buildings in front of columns used by government and financial institutions. The most unique monumental design of their architecture is the obelisk, a square monolithic stone structure that rises high and is topped by a pyramid – here we call it the Washington Monument in DC.