People Living in Poverty Stand Tall with Pride in Titus Brooks Heagins’s Lens

Titus Brooks Heagins: Songs of the South!    

Through Nov. 25

Horace Williams House, Chapel Hill

(originally posted in Indyweek, Oct. 11, 2018)

Coming face to face with the images of Durham photographer Titus Brooks Heagins is not for the faint of heart.

“My duty as a documentary photographer portraitist … is to visually speak and present truth,” Heagins says. And so, in this exhibit, you will stare into the eyes of people who look right back at you without fear, almost defiant, standing tall in their truths. While most of them are poor and live under the radar of those of us who have privilege, they are not by any means shy or embarrassed.

Songs of the South Manifesto

The photos in Songs of the South!, on view at Chapel Hill’s Horace Williams House as a part of the Click! Photography Festival, are Heagins’s visual tribute to rural areas in the South, including Durham. The subjects cross all kinds of lines of age, race, and gender, though what binds them all is membership in the lowest socioeconomic stratum in America. Heagins is a visual storyteller, and his photos capture tattoos, the scars of living, and the multiple faces of people for whom poverty and homelessness are a routine part of life.

Photo by Irma McClaurin                              Titus Brooks Heagins at the opening of his Horace Williams House exhibit “Songs of the South!”
“My portraits seek to portray the truth of the lives of those who give us the photograph, who grant us the opportunity to represent their lives,” says Heagins, a native of inner-city Chicago who picked up his first camera at age twenty-three and has now been a professional photographer for two decades. His photos give voice and visibility to people and situations of which he has firsthand knowledge.

“My photographs are about relationships, and I connect with them on a human level,” Heagins says. “I’ve experienced homelessness, and I lost my mother at a young age.” Capturing the rough dignity of the South has been his “labor of love and insanity” for years, and that dignity is evident in his iconic portraits of twin brothers decked out in blue shirts and white ties, reminiscent of old gangster movies, against a backdrop of trees that makes clear these are not city folk. But they stand tall and elegant in Heagins’s lens.

Heagins says he wants to remind the world of “racism and the levels of inequality and disparities that surround us” that never intrude on most of our lives. A Duke University graduate with an MFA from the University of Michigan, he is not a one-stop-shot cameraman and has visited some of his subjects multiple times. What begins as a portrait of one person can easily turn into a family affair.

Photo by Irma McClaurin                               Proud Grandmother next to image of Grandsons at Opening

“Most of the people I photograph live in extreme poverty, and often, my portrait is the only decoration in the house,” Heagins says. He carries a portable printer in the back of his car so he can produce images on the spot for people who can see themselves through the truth of his lens, the best gift he can leave behind.

In addition to Songs of the South!, Heagins’s “Durham Stories” photographs can be seen at his alma mater in Nasher Museum exhibit Across County Lines: Contemporary Photography from the Piedmont through early February.