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Friday, April 22, 2011

Griot with a Lens

I tell you the truth: it pays to answer your telephone. One day in early 2004, the docent on duty in the lobby of the Anacostia Community Museum called me to come down to greet a visitor who was interested in the overall work and mission of the museum. I left my desk—piled high with project files—and met a lovely gentleman who was visiting from North Carolina. He said he was a professional photographer, as well as a poet and an author, and he wanted to donate some of his images to the museum’s collections. He was particularly interested (at that time) in the museum’s study, documentation, and archival work with rural as well as urban churches. We talked amicably for a while and agreed to speak again, once he sent our collections committee samples of the images he was offering.
Guide, New Testament Bpatist Church, 2002
Titus Brooks Heagins

Oh, did I mention that the visitor was Titus Brooks Heagins, renowned documentary photographer from Durham, North Carolina? His work is highly regarded in capturing the daily lives, experiences, and culture of people of color from around the world. Over his short professional career as a photographer since 1997 (he was formerly an arts program coordinator and a foundation director), he has produced an extensive body of work that covers worship services, funerals, cemeteries, daily encounters, and issues of identity and human interaction in places as disparate as the southern United States, Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, and Japan.

In many ways, to me, Heagins is a “griot with a lens.” His images tell their own stories, but, most important, they invite viewers to remember, recover, and imagine their own life tales. I look at “Guide, New Testament Baptist Church, 2002,” a photograph of an unnamed male usher (shown from the folded hands at the waist down), and I know this man. I know his commitment and dedication to being a doorkeeper for the Lord, because I see in Heagins’s photo the image of all the ushers and greeters I have ever encountered.

The other eleven oversize prints (from film and from digital process) that Heagins has donated to the Anacostia Community Museum (Titus Brooks Heagins photographs, circa 1997–2004) elicit similar reactions from all who see them. The evocations of time and place are strong and visceral; the imagery is often enchanting, often challenging.

What if I had not answered that phone call? Without this collection of vital images, what joys, what heightened sense of connection to humanity, what consciousness-raising opportunities would we have missed? I am certainly glad that Titus Heagins thought his work could be shared and conserved well here at ACM. I’m really glad I picked up my phone before the message rolled to voicemail!

Gail S. Lowe, Ph.D
Anacostia Community Museum

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