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?