World-renowned photographer Chester Higgins Jr. has created a series of 13 portraits currently on display at New York University’s Kimmel Center Windows Gallery at LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street. The photographs, which can be seen from the sidewalk, are 70-by-80-inch expositions of the characteristics and charms of various Ethiopian people.
Higgins, a photographer for the New York Times since 1975, captured the images during his visits to Ethiopia between 2007 and 2010. He traveled through the northern and southern regions, chronicling the physical nuances of the Afar, Amahra, Dessanech and Gnangaton people, among others.
Higgins has been traveling back and forth from Ethiopia for over 20 years. For the last 10 years he has been traveling there yearly, for six weeks at a time. He chose the Ethiopian people for this exposition because of the unique atmosphere of a country that was never colonized and has vas differences between the North and the South.
“I fell in love with the country and the people,” said Higgins. “Ethiopia is different, culturally. It’s ancient-speaking.”
Higgins was interested in showing the dichotomy between the country’s near-ancient traditionalism and modernity. To do so, he decided to bring the New York City fashion studio style of photography–with bright lights and beauty shots–to Ethiopia.
When he arrived in the East African country, Higgins and a small group of aides went out to different villages to find their subjects. They would never unload anything from the car until they spoke to the elders in the community and asked for permission. Higgins said he would tell them about his mission to share the stories of the people in Ethiopia and display their pictures to people who did not know they existed.
He would offer whatever the subjects deemed was a fair price, which was sometimes as little as $7 to $25. After he was given consent, he and his crew would set up a makeshift studio of backdrops and canopies, the synthetic backgrounds helping to capture the tiniest nuances in the subjects’ faces.
In the portrait of an Amara woman, one can see each red vein in her eyes and each yellowing blemish that layers the red and gold undertones of her skin. Tiny specks of dirt decorate the hair of the Afar man, whose bold gaze is both beautiful and stern as he stares at the camera straight on.
The yellow and white face paint of the Suri woman is given new dimension when, upon closer inspection, the flakes of dry paint raise outwards like tiny leaves on a wide tree. Her glazed eyes look to the right as her eyelids lay heavy on her face.
Perhaps one of the most arresting images is the portrait of the elderly Afar woman. Every line on her face is a river running around her eyes, which appear both sage and saddened. The wrinkles on her forehead cross and layer like wayward paths or the tally marks of passed time and memory. Her profile nearly fills the entire frame–only her red headscarf and the gray-blue background make up the remaining space.
The large size of the portraits is no coincidence. Higgins and the curator of the exhibit, Lydie Diakhate, wanted to attract a larger audience. Diakhate believed the Kimmel Center Windows Gallery was “a border between gallery and public art,” and wanted to take full advantage of the large space to focus simply on the people in the photographs rather than any other distractions.
“I’m always upset about how Africa is being portrayed in news, music and art. It’s never good. I just wanted to show people the Africa I know,” said Diakhate, who looked through 200 to 300 of Higgins’ photos to select the 13 on display.
The exhibit calls attention to the diversity of the people of Ethiopia, who differ as much in apparel as they do in appearance and attitude depending on the region they inhabit.
“I wanted the people who walk by, the students and tourists, to engage in a direct dialogue with the portraits,” said Diakhate, who believes the variety of racial groups of Ethiopia makes a commentary on the diversity in Africa.
“I worked with Chester Higgins to bring a new collective memory to the new Africa through Ethiopia,” said Diakhate, who is pleased with the exposition.
Higgins’ portraits, organized by the Institute of African American Affairs at NYU, will be on display until May 8.