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Stamps Alumni Spotlight: Titus Heagins (MFA ‘02)

Titus Heagins honed his photography skills during his graduate studies at the Stamps School of Art and Design and is a documentary and fine art photographer living and working in Durham, North Carolina.

He has taught photography and art history courses at many institutions and his work is part of numerous private and public collections across the globe. Heagins’ approach to photography is one of compassion. He’s driven to tell respectful and truthful visual stories about people often seen as “other”. This mission has taken Heagins around the world, starting in Havana, Cuba, then Haiti, then continuing into the Southern United States. In addition to his extensive work in these areas, he’s also traveled to Mexico, China, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe to create compelling imagery.

Relationships are the foundation of Heagins’ work. He treats every session as a mindful exchange, carefully framing each subject’s story in a positive light. His work counters stereotypes and highlights the humanity in subjects that are often passed over. His latest work centers around the Black Lives Matter movement and closure protests. As ever, he has approached this work with a desire to understand and aims to capture each individual’s emotion and intent. Heagins also has two upcoming exhibitions: one in Havana that recalls slavery photographed on plantations and one in Raleigh, North Carolina of portraits of transgender women in Cuba.

How did you fall in love with photography? What sustains your motivation to do this work?

When I was in my early 20s, I visited a camera store with my friend, and about two weeks later, I went back to that same store and bought one for myself. Photography was nothing more than a hobby at first, and it wasn’t until I went to Cuba in July of 1997 that I really considered it a serious pursuit. After my trip, I was at a crossroads of what to do next in my career. I had recently been let go from my job as program director at a historic foundation and was invited to have lunch with a composer and mentor, TJ Anderson, who had been following my work there. I knew I had to have some sort of plan of what I was going to do next, and I had just come from getting the photos from my recent trip to Cuba developed. As I looked through them, I thought they looked pretty good for someone just starting out. As we sat there having lunch, he asked me what my plan was and I blurted out “I’m going to pursue photography.” I stuck with what I said that day and continued to where I am today. It was really a stumbling into the field - I didn’t quite fall into it, but I stumbled into it. I was influenced by being in Durham, North Carolina, which was where the Center for Documentary Studies was getting started. I was looking at the type of work they were bringing in, and it seemed like the work I should do. I chose photography because it was something I could do on my own terms and my own decisions. I didn’t need someone else’s permission or approval to do that. Photography gave me the opportunity to do and say the things I was interested in. I had always been interested in doing things that related to studies of race and class, and it was a way I could address those issues from my own perspective. It is what has sustained me and kept me in the field. It’s allowed me to have a voice and to have that voice not be regulated by others. It’s given me a tremendous amount of freedom to pursue my own truth or the truth as I view it from other people's lives. Plus, it has given me an amazing opportunity to travel the world. My cameras have taken me to five continents!

What do you hope people who view your work will experience?

I really hope that they will come to some understanding about who the people are I have photographed and perhaps what their lives are like. I hope that it will in some way transform how they think about people who are “othered” by the different structures of our societies. 

What advice do you have for students looking to make or inspire change through their creative practice?

My advice would be to pursue your truth. No matter what is going on in your specific creative field, practice it the way you want it to be practiced, not the way others want you to do it. I’ve received a lot of suggestions about how to change my work and sometimes it can be very frustrating. Those suggestions didn’t tell the stories I wanted to tell or say what I wanted to say. I’m sure financial awards and notoriety has its place, but I do think that being true to who you are is more important. Follow your own truth and if you are true to your art it will eventually pay off. 

What does it take, creatively and as an individual, to tell the visual stories you do? Where or who are you hoping to photograph next?

The work I do and the stories I tell are the last thing I think about when I am going to bed and the first thing I’m thinking about when I wake up in the morning. I always have a camera with me because I don’t want to miss an opportunity. If you’re serious about your practice, you have to allow it to consume you. It takes a strong and understanding partner as well. If you’re not going to live a life of solitude then you have to have someone who knows what drives you and is supportive of that. I’ve been fortunate that my wife, Maureen, has always trusted my work and believed in me. It's important to find a partner in life who is someone who will grow with you and will understand the continual growth that occurs along your path. 

It also takes a desire to want to learn and tell someone else's story. I’m very attracted to the stories I want to tell and the people I photograph, because they remind me of people I grew up with. It’s about forming a relationship with the kind and respectful people I photograph. And vice versa, I want them to understand who I am and how my life is very relatable to their own. 

I will always want to go back to Cuba. I’ve been going three to four times a year over the past five years while working on the transgendered project, and it’s one of my favorite places to visit. I would love to go back to Bahia, Brazil as well. When I last visited, I started photographing a religious group of Afro-Brazilian women, the Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death. The other thing I would really love to do is photograph icebergs. It’s so different from what I’ve done, and I would love to get down to Antarctica, one of the continents I haven’t visited yet.