With the publication of his new book of photos and essays, Occupants — which aims to illuminate the United States' relationship with the developing world through photos and essays — Henry Rollins has proven himself yet again to be a fascinating cultural critic and chronicler. He kindly agreed to an e-mail interview with the Express to talk about it all.
EBX: First of all, I should say that it’s great to get to chat with you, even via e-mail. You and I have the same birthday, so I’ve always wanted to thank you for giving your press such a fantastic name.
EBX: Okay, so, questions: How long have you been taking photographs? When did you get the notion that your photos could tell stories in a new and different way for you?
HR: I started when I was young. I took a photo class in school and learned how to develop photos in a darkroom. I took a lot of photos in my teen years, but never really worked on it like I have been over the last six or seven. At one point in the early 2000s, I started upgrading my gear and that was when I started getting very interested in really working hard on getting the photos to match the intensity of what I was seeing. It’s one thing to see something that moves you, it’s another to try and make someone else see it.
EBX: Much of the writing in Occupants is from others’ viewpoints, but some of it — the one called “Huck” that accompanies the boy with the painted face in Burma, the one with the photo of Jimmy Pursey in London, “This tragic moment…” — feels autobiographical. What was it about certain photos that inspired you to call up your own memories instead of getting inside the heads of others?
HR: Writing in someone else’s voice, for me, it’s an editorial. It’s a way to protest or be forceful with an opinion from a very different angle. It’s a very interesting place it puts me [in] as I write these things. I started doing that years ago as almost a writing exercise, to see what would happen; sometimes the result was nothing like what I thought it would be. There’s a bit of that in this book. Sometimes, you see something totally alien to your life and you can see something of yourself in it. Perhaps that’s what makes people go to art galleries. I tried to open myself up to many options when writing about the pictures. I had only done that once before in a book I wrote many years ago. Someone sent me a photo of a prom couple who died in a car crash on the way to the prom. I looked at the couple and started writing. I did a bit of that with Occupants.
EBX: Under what circumstances was the photo of the boy in Mali wearing a Bin Laden T-shirt taken? Looks like there are a lot of Westerners on the scene — tourists with backpacks and cameras. What was the event? And is the fact that the boy is standing in what looks like an invisible circle a lucky shot, or were people actually avoiding him?
HR: It was at the Music Au Desert Festival in Essakane, Mali. I watched other people ask the kid if they could take his picture and he said no. I think people were perhaps giving him some distance so they could get their own shot of him. I got my settings, turned around and started taking photos. I got about three and then he walked away. There was no way I could let that one go.
EBX: The two McDonald's photos in Thailand, and the writing that accompanies them, are two of the most disturbing images in the book — and that’s with no abject poverty in sight, no missing limbs or broken glass. The first essay is actually pretty hilarious, but the second one is so vitriolic that it’s hard to read. Was it difficult to write?
HR: Actually, it wasn’t hard to write at all. It was good to get all that out. I obviously don’t like what the America sometimes does to other countries through globalization. I think to a certain degree, the world is becoming smaller and flatter because of agencies like McDonald's. I just wish there was a more even mix, like Asian culture in the America. Of course, there are restaurants with food from other countries but it’s Americanized and culturally housebroken. The America doesn’t bend much when it comes barging into other cultures. I’m not a fan of that.
EBX: The photos of the people selling Black Flag T-shirts in Indonesia reminded me of a kid in Bali who acted as our guide to the Gitgit waterfall; he had Misfits and Ramones patches on his stuff. In your intro you write that, to write this book, you sat down with the photos and let each one take you wherever it could. With those photos, though, do you remember your initial reaction? Was it too complicated to process, or was it a simple “holy shit!” or “fuck you!”?
HR: No. It was simply tripping on how the America washes up on other shores. How it presents itself abroad. It’s almost absurdist, the photo. The woman has a very gentle face but the shirt is extremely provocative and confrontational. I wonder if she understands what she’s wearing.
EBX: One of the themes of Occupants is the relationship between Western militarism and capitalism and the rest of the world. What do you think of the current Occupy Wall Street protests going on right now? Do you see a thread between those protests and the Arab Spring, running east to west instead of in the other direction?
HR: I think these protesters are getting to the crux of the matter, as it were. If they weren’t, Fox News wouldn’t so obsessed with them. If they’re just a bunch of hippies, as Bill Maher and P.J. O’Rourke say, then why all the fuss? It can only be because they are hitting a mainline. As far as the Fox people and some politicians, they are visibly shaken. In my opinion, I think the one who should be really tripping on all this is the president. He dropped the ball. The people picked it up. I think this the American version of the Arab Spring. It is the pigeons of capitalism coming home to roost.
EBX: Pieces like the one accompanying the picture of the hand-grenade-blasted wall in Okinawa serve as scathing condemnations of the human race, while the words accompanying the photo of the goat-herder in Mali, though also harsh, speak to a peace that can be found in remote regions of the world. What, if you had to choose, is your ultimate goal with Occupants — to inspire guilt or inspire hope?
HR: It is to bring what is distant up close. Guilt is a nonstarter for me. It doesn’t work and it’s a cheap mechanism. I want to bring across how people bear up no matter what. No matter where they were crazy enough to stop and breed, they make do. Pity is a convenient, useless emotion for the most part. It comes easily to those who don’t have to walk miles and miles for a bucket of water. People in fragile environments do not need anyone’s pity. They could perhaps greatly benefit from the likes of Union Carbide not setting up shop and polluting the soil and groundwater or some clothes maker not setting up a sweatshop and recreating working conditions of pre-Fair Labor Standards Act America. That would be peachy. Hope is a waste of time. There is pass and there is fail. You can be part of either one.