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.
At any point during the shooting of what became this book were you asked to put your camera away?
Only one time. It was at a military base in Abu Dhabi that’s a classified base. It’s kind of on the down-low because that’s where they keep a lot of U2 spy planes.
One of the most disturbing image in the book was the one showing the hooded mannequins.
That was in Delhi. I almost felt like I was suffocating while taking the photo. It screams out at you in a very weird way. It says a lot about different cultures. These images, these things offend me. I go to these places and my main sentiment coming back from a lot of it is, I’m offended. I’m offended at what the West does and how the West washes up on these shores and manifests itself.
Did the essays come from journal entries written at the time or did you revisit each photo with a fresh pair of eyes?
There’s nothing extracted from a journal. I sat each photo out and related to it in my own fractured, weird prism. And that kind of writing is very hard to do.
It’s not journalism. With journalism, you just get the idea and hang words off it. The idea’s the most difficult part. Putting words on it — that’s just putting leaves on a tree. It’s growing the tree that’s the bitch.
But hopefully I ended up with something more impactful than a mere photo book. I mean, if you’re James Nachtwey, a famous war photographer, you can get by with your photos because you’re a photographer. I’m still learning, as you can see. Since the book is laid out chronologically, you can see that resolution, composition, light, and F-stop choice actually evolve. Because part way through, I found out what F-stop meant.
You more or less apologize in the intro for your amateur photography skills.
Only because for about 30 years plus I’ve been in front of a lot of really good photographers. And having the respect that I do for photography I had to go, “Look, I’m just a guy with a fat passport who gets to go places.” Let this just be what it is. Although I do work very hard on the photography and I’m trying to get better.
One of the most pervasive themes I took from the book was resilience, which in a very different context is something the gay community is familiar with.
Yeah, you’d have to be.
But does having seen so much destruction in the world make something like the fight for marriage equality seem insignificant in scale?
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, the upshot of all of it is, it makes me like people more. 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.
You’ve been very vocal in your support.
I personally think all marriages are crazy, in that I would never be able to give half my record collection away just because of some stupid contract I signed, but I think Bill and Leon should be able to take that mad plunge if they see fit to do so. If you’re lucky enough to find someone that you wanted to make that wild promise with, who the hell is anyone to stop you? 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.
You’ve been setting a good example for decades. On Big Ugly Mouth, your second spoken word record, you tell a fun story about being in Little Rock on your 25th birthday and encountering a transgender woman named Peach.
Even back then you handled the story with respect and dignity, which — not to get all judge-a-book-by-its-cover-y — is not what one might have expected from the lead singer of an ’80s punk rock band.
Black Flag was always a band of misfits that catered to other misfits. We had gay people at our shows, we had cross dressers. In San Francisco, there was Bambi Lake, who I’ve known since 1980-something. She would come to our shows in full Marlene Dietrich mode with her cassette of Marlene and she’d open for us, lip-synching. And even though this was San Francisco, where you’d think everyone was open-minded, there would always be that faction of the audience who wanted to climb up onstage and beat her up. We saw homophobia at our gigs, but we always had that misfit alliance. So, when Peach sat on my lap [in Little Rock], I was like, I’ll have this conversation. It’s not freaking me out. [Laughs] I get hit on by men. At this point, with all the gray hair I have, I take it is nothing but a compliment: “It’s not the bolt of cloth I’m cut from, but thank you.”
Did you take it as a compliment when you and Glenn Danzig were depicted as a gay couple in a comic book?
You know, I’ve signed a number of those but I’ve never opened one. Not that it makes me cringe or wince, but honestly, the less voices I hear, the better it is for me creatively. My nice press lady begs me to read some of these reviews. She says, “Henry, the guy was such a good writer and he said such nice things about you.” I say, “Tell him thank you for me, but I really don’t want to know — good or bad.” At this point I’m too old to care. If someone rips me a new one in a review, I just say, “Hey, first amendment. Say what you want. Long may you wave.” I’m not here to censor lest I be censored, but no I’ve never opened up that comic so whether it’s derogatory or laudatory, I can’t tell you.
I assume you haven’t discussed it with Mr. Danzig.
Glenn is someone I’ve met a few times in my life. The last time we spoke was, like, 12 years ago. I don’t even know where the guy lives. I guess we’re just two people who are fairly easy to caricature.
Have you made any interesting gay observations in your travels?
You know, gay is such a non-issue in a lot of places. It’s as interesting as laundry. And quite honestly, I’m only interested in what I’m getting up to. As for you — rumble, young man, rumble. I just hope that everyone had a good time and that you weren’t lonely. [Laughs] As long as we can leave out the kids and the dogs, and as long as no one is abducting people with rufies in the Beverly Center parking garage, your sexuality is your business and everyone else needs to shut up and get a life. Lose the gills and twitching primordial tail and get on with real concerns in the world.
Do you think that will ever happen?
That kind of ignorance is intolerable to me, and it’s not going to withstand this century. Obviously you’re always going to have the odd racist and homophobe, but I think it’s deep brush and the machete crew is going to do a good job of hacking it to pieces. I’ve seen great strides in my lifetime.
Will we ever see the name Henry Rollins on a ballot?
Hell, no. In the private sector I really enjoy the wallop I can have, but you see these people running for office and how some of them can’t take Round One of the withering assault by any agile press corps — that would be me. I would be well-intentioned but unable to play that game. You’ve got to want it to the point of monastic obsession to crave even the smallest local office. Especially with a past like mine. I think in the private sector I can have substantial impact. Being a guy who travels the world, takes photos, and gets them run in the newspaper or in a book can be effective in inspiring someone to get a passport and search the world in the hopes of learning more.
In addition to photographing the world and making music, Rollins is a DJ on KCRW and pens a weekly column in the LA Weekly.