As a punk rock and spoken-word icon, LA radio host, Vanity Fair blogger, and character actor (check out his turn as a white supremacist in season two of Sons of Anarchy), Henry Rollins is a man who seems to constantly seethe. But his new collection of photos and essays, Occupants, by turning a focused eye on the effect the United States has had on Burma, Bangladesh, Israel, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, North Korea, and other far-flung locales, allows readers to gaze in awe upon the strength, grace, and resourcefulness of humanity — while perhaps quietly counting our blessings, and tallying up our fucking guilt, thank you very much.
“I wanted to at least attempt to give my fellow Americans and anyone else who checks out the book an opportunity to see what other parts of the world look like and what America looks like in these places,” said Rollins, whose photos are arranged chronologically and, therefore, grow larger and ever more sophisticated. Beginning in 2003 with a desolate, three-by-five-inch shot of a storage container repurposed as a house in Kyrgyzstan, and ending in 2010 with full-page, vibrant shots of parading Tuareg camel riders in Mali and Rollins’ friend Kenny posing with a smile by a South African barbershop, Occupants charts Rollins’ growth as a photojournalist. Throughout the book he becomes not just more skilled but also bolder and more likely to take photos of faces than of inhuman landscapes.
The writing in Occupants is a mad pastiche of rants, some sarcastic, some wistful, almost always angry. Rollins, who appears at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Monday, October 24, takes on a variety of viewpoints, speaking as soldiers, children, farmers, beggars, and even, occasionally, himself. As he explains in the book’s introduction, he looked at each photograph and, picking up his pen, followed whatever narrative path each image led him down. “Some people can politicize almost anything,” said Rollins. “I am probably one of them.” Some of the more effective essays are shaded with personal experience, like the acid-tinged two-parter “Free Market Capitalism, Faggot!” that accompanies shots of Indonesian vendors hawking, among other things, T-shirts bearing the logo of Rollins’ old band, Black Flag.
Two photos of a McDonald’s in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the writing that accompanies them, are two of the most disturbing spreads in the book. The first essay is actually pretty hilarious, with the photo’s smiling Ronald — hands in prayer posture and flanked by an ATM machine — extolling the undying comfort his franchise provides at all hours, on every continent. But the words that accompany the second picture, that of a uniformed worker sweeping around a different statue of the trademark clown, are so vitriolic that they’re hard to read, and, for Rollins, some of the most difficult to write. “I wrote very harshly towards [the worker], basically saying that she was stupid and had lost. What I mean by this is that this is what America does to other cultures. We put a fast-food restaurant in these places and make the locals dress up. It’s humiliating to the eye.” But as the pages of Occupants turn, and Rollins’ own photographic eye becomes more refined, it’s easy to see that his rage can’t quite squelch his own fascination with — and remarkable insight into — the family of man. 7 p.m., free. 510-525-7777 or BooksInc.net