Henry Rollins Documents, Discusses ‘Occupations’

Henry Rollins at Coachella, April 2009. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

When Henry Rollins first burst into the public eye as Black Flag’s singer 30 years ago – yeah, that’s right, Hardcore Hank now qualifies as a classic rocker – it was probably tough to envision the frantic, feral frontman carving out a career as a spoken-word performer, much less writing prose, hosting Nat Geo documentaries, or any of the countless other activities in which the punk polymath has involved himself over the years. “Globetrotting shutterbug” would probably have seemed like just as unlikely, but with the release of his first photo book, Occupants, Rollins has added that role to his resume as well.

In addition to his international touring schedule, Rollins also has a well known passion for travel that takes him all around the world under his own steam. Eventually, he started lugging a camera around with him, and learned to use it. “I’m quite the amateur,” he admits, “but for someone who travels as far and wide as I do, I think taking a camera is a good idea. I don’t take myself seriously, but I take the camera real seriously.”

Occupants mostly finds Rollins capturing photographic portraits of the people he encountered on the streets wherever in the world he happened to find himself, and adding accompanying text to the images after the fact. “The book goes from 2003 to 2010,” he explains. “It starts in Central Asia and it ends in South Africa. I would look at the photo months, sometimes years later, and write about how it made me feel.” Rollins being the straight shooter that he is, a lot of what comes across in the photos is less than rosy. “A lot of it to me is what globalization looks like,” he assesses. “McDonalds in Thailand, the way it stands out like an eyesore … it’s insulting to me, and I see a lot of that in the world. You see where all the bad clothes end up, the cell phones that didn’t work very well, they all get sold off over there. When you go to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, you kind of see how the Western world washes up on its shores. If you look at the photos in the book you can see it. That’s what the book hopefully addresses in part.”

McDonalds Thailand Cleaning Lady. Photo: Henry Rollins. Courtesy of IPG Publicity

His experiences in this context haven’t all been negative, though — for one thing, his faith in human nature was repeatedly reinforced during his journeys. “People have been by and large extremely friendly to me,” he reports. “I’ve had pretty good luck so far. I think you get a lot of what you give; I go out there with a smile on my face, and maybe my body language says ‘I’m curious, I want to know more.’ People say, ‘Oh, come inside my home, see this.’ So far the only place I’ve nearly been killed has been America.”

Nevertheless, for Rollins, one of the side effects of creating Occupants has been a burst of national pride. “I really love America,” he confesses. “I learned the most about America by going to these places. I can be objective. I always tell people I meet in other countries, ‘Please try and visit America … you’re really gonna like the people. In my opinion Americans are about 99 percent fantastic. I think people who might be scared or angry at America would change their mind if they came here. I love the constitution … I love our history, I think we’re an amazing story. And I think it’s a country that’s still new and still rapidly developing; as a concerned citizen you can have a real part of its steerage, and that keeps me here. I really believe in the idea of it, this great social experiment, democracy, and this great idea of this Republic. I’ve been pretty far and wide and I keep coming back with ‘I really love America.’ And traveling makes me love it more.”

Speaking of that aforementioned 99 percent and the political empowerment of the people, has Rollins pondered the possible link between his concept of occupation and the central motif of Occupy Wall Street? Of course he has. “You, me, the president, anybody, you take up space for a while, and then you die off,” he says. “Sometimes afterwards, when they have some kind of stupid mausoleum built for themselves, they occupy it, they take up space. And then someone else buys your house, moves in, and takes up the space. That’s why I called the book that. And that’s what Occupy Wall Street’s doing. Someone else said, “This is about the numbers, this is about people showing up.” I think when people take up space selectively, like Occupy Wall Street, or any protest where people gather and show power in numbers … I think there is a tie-in. I’ve been doing these bookstore appearances and people keep bringing that up, like “Occupy Wall Street, ‘Occupants’, that’s pretty cool.” Well, it’s not like I saw anything coming, but yeah, that’s what people can do, it’s a very powerful thing. I think when you get enough numbers, then you’ve got something. It’s the only thing that the 99 percent of America has. As Jim Morrison said, “They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers.”

Nepal Garbage. Photo: Henry Rollins. Courtesy of IPG Publicity

Rollins has visited Occupy sites in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Seattle, and he’s got some ideas about where it’s headed. “I know February in New York is gonna be rough … They’re gonna go home, and they’re gonna take the winter to connect – make websites, get out newsletters. Then 2012, the snow melts, and this thing goes like crazy wide open. There’s gonna be some people who are gonna push back on the cops, and it’s gonna turn into clouds of tear gas. It’s been relatively mellow – I don’t see that lasting when the temperatures rise, when it’s 95 degrees in New York, I think something might boil over.”

So, what does Rollins see as a positive way forward for the OWS phenomenon? “I just hope that at every stop on Obama’s campaign he gets asked a  lot about Occupy Wall Street, because the only reason there’s Occupy Wall Street, in my opinion, is because Obama dropped the ball, and the people picked it up. He’s gotta get more specific. He said, “Ask me the hard questions” like three years ago. I’d love to do that. It’s my job as a citizen.”

While Rollins hasn’t extended his photographic exploits to capturing the “occupants” at OWS, there is another part of the world in political flux that he says he’d love to capture on film. “I wish I was in Libya,” he enthuses. “That’s where I’d like to be right now. I’d like to be there with my camera and be in the middle of that.”

Occupants is out now on Chicago Review Press

 

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