Around the World with Henry Rollins
BY Winston Gieseke
October 14 2011 4:00 AM ET
For 25 years, Henry Rollins has been traveling the world photographing areas of conflict. Hoping to inspire positive action, the rocker-writer-actor-activist-spoken word poet has unleashed the visual fruits of these efforts in his first photo book, Occupants. Featuring colorful 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 the former Black Flag front man’s unmistakably forthright and often angry voice.
The Advocate: Occupants is not just a book of photos, it’s a book of stories.
Henry Rollins: I am always in the position — it may be self-imposed — where I feel I need to prove myself and overachieve. I figured if I released merely a photo book, it would seem pretentious in that “Oh, here’s one of those squishy liberal actor-activist types with his photo book” sort of way. Like it’s Jane Fonda with a scrotum. I didn’t want people to write it off. So, rather than just offer up my edgy holiday snaps, I said, “I’m gonna put writing next to all of this. This thing is going to stick to your ribs. And it’s going to take you awhile to get through it because I’m going to put more calories into it.” I had to make it something I felt OK putting a price tag on.
One of the photos that stood out for me shows a woman in Yogyakarta wearing a Black Flag T-shirt. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume she wasn't a fan.
Ever wondered what happens to those unwanted T-shirts you throw into those boxes in the supermarket parking lot? Those massive pallets of compressed cloth travel across the world and end up keeping someone warm. For the woman in Yogyakarta, that shirt was merely a covering for her body. Luckily when I saw her, some kids on a motor bike recognized me, pulled over, and went, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m here to meet you,” which is my kind of stock one-liner-ice breaker. I said, “Can you explain to this woman the irony of this?” This nice vendor lady with her Black Flag shirt spoke no English that we could see, and they translated to her like, “This is the guy in that band — you’re wearing the shirt from his band.” She kind of smiled politely and went, “Uh-huh — you want to buy some cigarettes or not?” It didn’t register a blip.
I have to confess that my first reaction to the book was a selfish one: namely, how blessed I am to be living a life that I consider very fortunate. Was it your intention to conjure up that kind of emotion?
I think it was some of the intent, but it's not really for me to hand out some sort of big morality lesson because I’m kind of a wretch and no better than anyone. But instead of feeling selfish or guilty about that, which is a natural — you’re a sensitive person, so you’re going to have a reaction like that — I think it also can be turned into something that makes for better things to happen. Hopefully a young person looks at this book and thinks, Wow I’ve got to get a passport. I’ve got to pull my head out of my ass and get off my iPhone and get out into the world. The best way to get an understanding of America is to get out of it and, in the abstract, see how it washes up on other shores.