Developed in 1921 by Swiss psychoanalyst, Hermann Rorschach, and widely used as a projective personality test in the 1960’s, the Rorschach test uses inkblots to spark visual associations in the viewer purportedly revealing deep seated layers of a person’s personality. Photographer, Titus Brooks Heagins, applies this theory to the viewing experience of his portrait series, “Rorschach” in which the viewer is asked to tackle their own preconceived notions of race, class, gender, and age. In addition to functioning as a source of self-reflection, these photographs present candid portraits of vulnerability and strength and challenge conventional notions of beauty though a stunning display of diversity.
Heagins has dedicated his career to documenting people who are often thought of as “other.” From southern black church culture, to transgendered persons living in Cuba, his camera has served as a means to broaden the perceptions of his viewers and highlight societal challenges that skirt the mainstream. In “Rorschach,” Heagins pushes the bounds of his medium with a more formal approach. Each of his subjects is presented in the same bare shouldered posture against a neutral background. Through classical poses and striking lighting, every one of these individuals is elevated to an object of beauty and reverence. For Heagins, “Photography keeps me in awe. Especially while creating a portrait. There is a certain honesty, a type of spiritual integrity that comes out and does not elude itself from the camera’s lens.” Take, ‘Darron Kamal Walker,’ who gazes skyward, neck extended. A shock of bronze hair against his deep brown skin. Despite his wary eyes, he is an embodiment of the splendor of hope and aspiration.
While the portraits have undeniable veneration for the individuals portrayed, the consistent stripped down presentation also highlights the physical and racial differences among the group. There is a subtle allusion to the pseudo-scientific images of the nineteenth-century in which people of difference were studied as specimens or as racial “types.” Additionally, these larger than life portraits confront us in an aggressive way that naturally turns the gaze inward, creating discomfort through forced introspection. The portrait, ‘Nikki’ demonstrates the ways that Heagins hopes this series will challenge the viewer to examine deep rooted prejudices and assumptions and to consider the complex humanity of all his subjects. The model, Nikki, has albinism a condition that reduces the pigmentation of her skin and hair, and has a harmful impact on her vision. She exists in a space of racial ambiguity, her fair complexion juxtaposed to the coarse texture of her hair and broad facial features. Though her blindness isn’t visible, her eyes look in slightly different directions alluding to her lack of vision. As viewers we scrutinize her with our eyes, looking closely and questioning her appearance. Where does she fit? What is her status? How can she be understood? Nikki’s experience of the world is full of actual encounters with people who ask these questions of her. Her appearance is a source of curiosity and strangers will touch her skin and her with no permission. According to Heagins, “Some ask the ridiculous question, “What are you?” She [Nikki] has begun to wear a t‑shirt with the bold declaration, I AM HUMAN.” In this image, Nikki’s straight posture and head on gaze present her not only as a minority, not as a disorder or a “type” but as a confident, whole and beautiful human being.
Titus Brooks Heagins is a documentary and fine art photographer based in Durham, NC. Heagins holds a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Photography from the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Heagins projects have taken him to Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and through the Caribbean, working extensively in Cuba and Haiti. Heagins has shown his work extensively in publications and galleries nationally and internationally. Portfolios of his photography are included in the collections of several museums including the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum of African American Art and History, the North Carolina Museum of Art and LeHigh University’s Zoeller Galleries. Heagins is represented by the Arnika Dawkins Gallery in Atlanta, GA.