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In focus: Chester Higgins Captures the Spirit of the Nile River

By David Schonauer   Tuesday July 9, 2019


The longest river in the world has a long history.

Photographer Chester Higgins sees the Nile as a cord connecting past and present. For the past four decades, Higgins, a staff photographer for the New York Times from 1974 to 2014, has been documenting Blue Nile cultures and, noted Nile magazine recently, “seeking connections between the ancient people who made up the empires of Aksum (modern Ethiopia), Kush (Sudan) and Kemet (Egypt).”

Higgin’s project “River Spirit,” he says, “tells the story of humanity's journey of sacred imagination.”

“The photographs,” he says, “establish the sacred legacy of Western religion and people of African descent through the story of the River Nile from Ethiopia to Egypt and how faith migrated up and down this waterway for millennia, depositing vestiges of ancient spiritual practice that are evident in modern worship.”

As we noted in a 2016 Profile, Higgins is an esteemed figure in New York photography. “[H]e he has been called one of the premier African American photographers of his generation, though the description is perhaps too limiting,” we wrote. Among his six books are Black Woman, Some Time Ago: A Historical Portrait of Black America (1850–1950), and Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa. His book Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, reflected his interest in that region of the world, we noted.

We also noted that Higgins was working on another ambitious project — what he called “a visual narrative about the birth and evolution of spirituality and pre-biblical faith along the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and Egypt.” That work became “River Spirit.”

“There is something mystical, even supernatural, about the Blue Nile,” declares writer Betsy Kissam, who has been working alongside Higgins on the “River Spirit” project.

“When Herodotus identified Egypt as ‘the gift of the Nile’ in the 5th century B.C., he had no knowledge of the source of the Blue Nile in the highlands of contemporary Ethiopia — 6,000 feet above sea level,” Kissam notes at Nile Magazine. “But anyone who has witnessed the watery turmoil created by the Ethiopian summer rains can appreciate the otherworldly beauty of the frothing reddish volcanic soil in this water and its menace as it hurtles down mountainsides, tracking through ancient gullies and joining to form swift flowing streams, tributaries and then the impressive Blue Nile River.”

“At the source and mouth of the Nile River are found the only monumental stone monoliths in Africa—pharaonic and Aksumite obelisks,” notes Kissam. “Images on Egyptian and Nubian tomb and temple walls bring to life symbols and the accouterments of early spiritual practice; when photographs of these are juxtaposed with those of rituals enacted in Ethiopia today, they focus links between “children of the river” in Egypt and Sudan—and farther south in the highlands of Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile.”

She adds, “Similarities in Higgins’s photographs, illustrate cultural connections up and down the river.”

Higgins, we noted in 2016, made his first trip to Ethiopia in 1973, after learning that that African heads of state were gathering for an Organization of African Unity meeting in Addis Ababa. Thereafter he returned annually. “I used my vacation time to travel to Africa each year,” he said.

“When I travel to Ethiopia or Africa, I’m not in search of something exotic, I’m in search of reflections of myself,” he said in an interview  in the Times in 2015, adding, “In Ethiopia, I’m no longer in a society where I am a minority. I am the majority."

In the 1980s Higgins began photographing mummies in the Cairo Museum and became absorbed by the culture of ancient Egypt and the religion that it was built around — one, he notes, that is based in nature.

In Africa, Higgins told us, he looks for “evidence of humanity’s spiritual legacy.”

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