For 25 years, Henry Rollins has been traveling the world photographing areas of conflict. And he’s often troubled by what he sees. “My main sentiment coming back from a lot of it is, I’m offended,” he says. “I’m offended at what the West does and how the West washes up on these shores and manifests itself.”
Hoping to inspire action, Rollins has unleashed the visual fruits of these efforts in his first photo book, Occupants (Chicago Review Press, $35). Featuring jaw-dropping images from locales ranging from Afghanistan to Siberia, the book offers an unflinching look at the human condition in extreme places around the world. Accompanying the images are essays in Rollins’s unmistakably forthright and often angry voice. One unforgettable photo taken in India depicts what appears to be a vendor peddling mannequins with hoods covering their faces. Having seen so many images of hooded men at Abu Ghraib, the sight disturbed Rollins.
“I almost felt like I was suffocating while taking the photo. It screams out at you in a very weird way.” Equally offensive to him is the inequality LGBT Americans experience at home. But does having seen so much destruction make the battle for same-sex marriage seem insignificant in scale? Rollins says no.
“It makes it part of a rich tapestry of what keeps me optimistic about humans. As deplorable as some of these locations have been, I see how heartbreakingly friendly these people can be and how they will always skew towards dignity, generosity, and compassion — even when their surroundings are abysmal. And that, to me, is marriage equality and civil rights for gay people in America.”
While Rollins isn’t a fan of marriage, period (“I would never be able to give half my record collection away just because of some stupid contract I signed”), he believes everyone should have the option to take that plunge. “This is what the Founding Fathers — who Michele Bachmann says she loves so much but seems to know so little about — were strangling each other over in hot rooms in Philadelphia all those summers ago. This is what so many people took a musket ball in the face for. And this country should be the leader on all of that."
See some of the photos from Occupants on the following pages
Belfast, Northern Ireland, 2008
Rollins: "During the Bush administration, I took photos of any anti-Bush sentiment outside of America I could find."
Rollins: I was walking around in Bhopal and came across a slum. I ventured in and met some of the people who lived there. The young man in the striped shirt asked me to take his photo and so I did. The expression in his face is very intense -- it's as if he's looking through me at his future. The kid on the right has an interesting expression on his face and his body contact with the young man is curious.
New Delhi, India, 2009
Rollins: I have found that there is nothing more still than a dead body. I guess I am so used to them moving that, when they are dead, the stillness is very still. The number of flies on this New Delhi man and the texture of the skin on his face made me think he had perhaps expired. I thought I saw his chest slightly rise as if he were breathing, but it could have just been the flies moving.
Rollins: I kept trying to back up and keep them in focus and was able to get a few shots until they ran too close to the lens. This one shot luckily captured the energy of the Mopti children that I wanted to show. The girl at the far right seemed shy compared to the others; it was nice to see her smile.