Henry Rollins ain’t in it for the scenery: An interview with the Black Flag punk rock icon, actor, and author
If ever there was a black hole masquerading as a human, that phenomenon is Henry Rollins. Nothing can escape the gravitational pull of a black hole’s event horizon, and similarly, no one can sidestep the thrall of Rollins’ ferociously present storytelling. Both absorb matter at an alarming rate, and each slows time – though it could be said orators like Rollins dissipate time completely while chronicling across stage.
Rollins was lead singer of Black Flag and later for Rollins Band. He’s published dozens of books, appeared in over 30 movies, has a radio show, writes regularly for L.A. Weekly, and created the 2.13.61 publishing company. On Rollins’ downtime, he synthesizes world-wending adventures into multi-continent spoken word tours.
DGO’s hella psyched Henry Rollins chiseled out a minute to chat before embarking on his Travel Slideshow tour.
When did photography become its own entity to you, rather than a memory trigger for your writing? When I upgraded my camera gear and took a few lessons from the woman who inspired me to get the better camera gear – a woman named Maura Lanahan. She was the set photographer on a TV show I did, The Henry Rollins Show on Independent Film Channel – a very inventive title. I’d see Maura all the time and I’d say, ‘Hey, you do this for real. Can you look at my photos and give me some tips?’
My locations were unimpeachable. I was doing USO work, so I was in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and all these different places. She said, ‘OK, yeah, that’s Saddam Hussein’s porch. Your locations are very interesting. You definitely have an eye. You’re trying to tell a story, but let’s get you a camera where you can switch out lenses and lemme teach you f-stop and light.’
We went to the camera store and got this lens and that lens and a solid camera body. We went to the train station in L.A. and I asked why there, and Maura said, ‘Because there’s always new people coming and going and there’s lot of different light situations, shade, light, and shade and light.’ We spent the afternoon getting people in motion, getting people sitting still, then I read a few books.
I got really into it – trying to do what I could do with writing, or especially what I can do on stage, the storytelling, to get that to come through a photo. Trying to make you, the spectator, come with me, look at the photo, and not necessarily feel what I wanted you to feel or what I felt, but feel something. To be impactful with this light box in my hands.
Are you the sorta photographer who uses your camera as a shield or a bridge? Rarely do I travel for the scenery. I’m not sitting on an island on the shore with my feet in the sand. That’s very nice, it’s just not for me. I do some eco-traveling where it’s about looking at nature, like Antarctica where I’m going to see the penguins and the rapidly melting environments, but mainly, I’m in cities where people are. I’m in villages or slums trying to see how people are dealing with globalization, predatory capitalism, climate change, and dwindling resources, or inner tribal squabbles and border disputes.
I want to get the human story so I must deal with humans. I decided that I really do want to understand the world in my own way, by getting a plane ticket, going, getting my feet on the ground, and engaging. I’m not the kinda person who wants to engage in that kind of way – that, ‘Hey, show me around!’ I’d much rather engage in a confrontational, adversarial way, like with people who disagree with me in the Western world. ‘I love Trump.’ Oh? ‘I don’t. Let’s yell at each other.’ I way more prefer that.
It took me quite a while to go into villages, say in Indonesia, and say, ‘Hi, are you living here? Can I come in? I can?’ I’ve gotten really good at it because I actually do want to know. My curiosity, I let that be my lead. In a way, that’s my shield. I do want to know. My non-shield is my shield. I go in as the wacky guy sweating through my shirt who really does want to know how you get through the day, would you tell me? I have found that almost down to the last person, people fairly fall over themselves to show you around, once you let them know you really do want to know. They’re like, ‘Wow, OK. Well then, come on.’ I’ve done this all over the world and the only times I’ve had to run for my life, like literally not to die, were in America. The other 99 countries I’ve been to have been fairly fantastic in comparison.
How do you know when not to take a photo? It is natural engagement. I will ask to take photos, unless it is a super wide shot like a marketplace – which I love. There’s a flurry of activity. Vendors run out of stuff so they move and leave. You sold all your papayas so you split. The nut-seller comes in and sits down where the other person was and you come back to the market in an hour and those people are gone and the second shift has come in and the smells are different. I’ll stand in a corner and get a hundred people doing their thing. There I can be invisible and no one cares, but any time I’m closer up, I try and read that person. Some people are very shy. If you’re really shy when I hold up the camera, I’m not going to take your photo.
A lot of my earlier forays into trying to take photos, there are a lot of uncomfortable faces. I look back at them and cringe. People were too polite to say, ‘Please don’t do that.’ They have this look, especially women in Southeast Asia, saying, ‘I forgot my clothes and I’m at the bus stop.’ It’s a look of I’m-about-to-sneeze or I’m-about-to-cry. Big lesson learned. Ask.
You have to walk very gently because history and all of those white people who came before you kinda really did a number on cultures and people. When you travel with a camera you become hyper-aware that you weren’t the first. How do you not be that voyeur tourist who goes to the place where something awful happened, snap a few photos, and go away saying, ‘Dude! I saw this thing! It was so gnarly!’ I can’t ever be that person.
How has photography expanded your understanding of humanity?Traveling the way I do with a camera, if anything, has made me more empathetic in realizing that there’s so much to understand. It’s fairly paralyzing to try and understand within a million miles what Homo sapiens have sustained due to the wrath or hegemonic overreach of other members of the species.
America, we’ve never really been traumatized on a regular basis. 9/11 was a thing that shook America to its core. For me, it was days of feeling like I was dizzy and I almost wanted to vomit all of the time. It really destabilized me, but in other parts of the world, they go through that shaking up on a regular basis.
In Northern Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army comes in and takes your kids. Those kids eventually escape three years later and they’ve been made to do stuff that doesn’t even read as true, like no way would someone make a 15-year-old kid do that. Well, yes they did. I’ve interviewed some of those kids and met them in relocation camps.
You can’t imagine the post-traumatic stress of not being in the post-environment. It is a waking state. It’s never post because you’re never past it. When you take photos of these kids, their eyes go right through the lens and right through your head. It’s the thousand yard stare. They’re not there. I’ve met kids with it in Mali, Haiti, Madagascar – due to a trauma or constant malnutrition. It’s the fear of death or not having a meal. You’re six and all you know is hunger. There’s no book or wisdom that gets a young person through that. It destroys them. You see this on a regular basis. You meet people who their tribe, it has a 38 to 41-year-old life expectancy. Then you go back into your pressurized, air conditioned rocket ship, back to Heathrow Airport, back to Los Angeles International, back to your home, and you go to Trader Joes. You share a planet with Bangladesh. You can look at your boots and they still have the dust of wherever you just were. How do you reconcile?
So in all of the travel, of all the things I’ve seen and experienced, that might be the hardest part. The hardest part is not seeing the dead body; it’s reconciling the West with the rest of the world. The West is the West because of, to a great degree, what it has done to the rest of the world. You might not feel that in Indiana, but it’s true there as much as it’s true anywhere else.
How do you hold the weight of all the stories you hear? I call it swallowing hand grenades. You pull the pin and you gulp it down. It’s like holding in a sneeze. [Makes abrupt gulping noise] I internalize it because talking about it doesn’t make me feel better; it doesn’t change what I saw. I process it, I put it out there, but mainly, it resides. In my life, I get a lot of incoming information. Maybe way more than is healthy.
I go to the gym. I listen to music. I basically let it out through my pores on stage and on the page because you have to let some of it out. It’s like Mercury poisoning. You can have some mercury in your body, but I get a lot of incoming mercury. Some of it has to come out so I don’t get poisoned, but enough has remained that it drove me a little mad. The madness I can take. I must have found some kind of weird, invisible balance. I think all humans try and find that normal.
Sontag said, ‘The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of a photograph.’ How do you know which photos to put into the world? To depict empathy, not sensationalism?I’m very careful with the photos that I release. The way I put them out is, ‘Will I be seen as being manipulative?’ It’s from Sontag that I understand that photos are perfect manipulation.
The fellow who killed himself [Kevin Carter], he took that famous photo of the vulture staring at the crawling, starving child in Africa. Fascinating book, ‘The Bang Bang Club,’ about the people who took apartheid photography. There’s three photographers and one of them, [Carter], eventually died. I don’t know exactly why he killed himself, but he contradicted himself about that photo. People went, ‘What happened to that kid?’ He gave three different stories because he got the photo and he split.
I never want to be that guy. I only show the photos where I can defend the humanity. I never mean ill at any time when I’m taking a photo. I’m never trying to get one over on somebody. I never want to have that discussion. If a photo even smacks of it, I put it in the bin. I couldn’t write down for you on paper, for someone else, how to do it, in that for me, it’s an internal thing. A gut thing. I was there when I took it.
Your photography has a sense of interconnectivity and the dignity of everyday lives in it. Now that people are more interconnected than ever, and in my opinion, in many ways, never further away or more disengaged from each other, it’s made the world a closer but grimier place. The dignity and the ambient respect that you should carry with you in great quantities, or the benefit of the doubt of giving someone a moment before you judge, I think that that is almost gone.
In a world where the natural resources are getting to dangerous lows and the planet must go on, yet it seems be that this century we get to use it all because it will be magically renewed later, there’s a lot of willful ignorance. All these climate change deniers in Congress, they know better. These are not stupid people, but they are looking at the next election and money – super PAC money... So how do you push against that? How do you take a camera and get to a young person and inspire them to get a passport? Because if you’re 18 and you go to India, I don’t think you come back to the Western world thinking about food, water, or shelter the same way ever again. I don’t think that wears off. It’s not magic marker on your skin; it’s a tattoo. You can’t unsee it, unsmell it, and unfeel it. I think it goes into how you learn going forward, how you regard others, and how you regard physical space or a shower.
If the current administration asked you to be the staff photographer with no holds barred on what you could take photos of, would you do it? The current president? I find him and his administration very uninteresting because he’s not interested in being president. I know I look and sound to you like I’m 27, but actually I’m almost 60 and I don’t have a whole lotta time left. I don’t think I’m going to keel over tomorrow, but at a certain age, you’ll see, you might have your own version of this going forward – you start really picking and choosing your fights.
If someone said two to six years in the world with President Trump, unless I could sign something that said I could write about it later and make the insane book, no, I can’t do it. But if I was 27? Sure, turn me loose. Not at 57.
Would you ever consider doing studio or portrait photography? I’ve been photographed by a lot of famous photographers. They love it when you have a flawed face. They look at you and say, ‘Ahh, the camera’s gonna love that divot.’ [Laughs] I’ve watched them work and the one through line is there’s almost a savant thing they have. The character of “Beautiful! Oh! Beautiful!” They often do that because they are in this state of rapture where they are communicating with your face in a way that you have no idea that your face communicates.
I don’t know if I have that. I’ve been around those people and it is intense. You’re tired after an hour with them. They’re pulling your life force outta the pores of your skin. Then you look at the photo and say, ‘Yeah, I see why you get paid the big bucks.’ I don’t think I have that.
And, I just don’t know if I want to engage in that with people in that kind of sterile environment – but that’s not the right word, because it’s not sterile the way they’re using it. It’s anything but. I’m afraid that I wouldn’t be able to use a studio in anything but a sterile environment where it would all look like birthday shots or portraiture for the yearbook. You’d give me a Maserati but I’d drive it like a VW. You know what I mean? I wouldn’t be able to make the light in everything. I know what I want to see in a photo but I don’t know if I have that. Those people have a skill and a talent like someone who can pick up a guitar and make sense of it in an hour. They have so much that their fingers find the notes. Some people have that with a camera.
You’re a damn epic traveler and interviewer. How do you not have a TV show?It’s a show I’ve pitched so many times. Like, years ago, when Bourdain left Discovery Channel. We called Discovery the next day. I’m not kidding. From this office we said, ‘Hey, we got your new guy. It’s meeeee!’ I’ve pitched travel-let-me-talk-to-people kinds of shows where I say, ‘Here’s how cheap I can make it for you. . .’ and no one seems interested.
I’ve gotten stories that would kill your lawn. One time, I was in South Sudan and I was standing with a guy, Deng, who was an ex-child soldier. He fought the North for a decade. We’re standing where he fought years before and he said, ‘I threw my ammo canisters over there.’ I go, ‘Those?’ They were still there. He went, ‘Yeah, those were mine. My best friend died under that tree over there.’
A farmer came over – a Dinka guy. Deng was also Dinka. [The farmer] said, ‘I want to show your friend my corn. We’re very proud of our corn.’ You can’t not see the corn. You must show respect, and I want to see the corn. It’s cool. We went to the cornfield.
There’s all these lumps in the field. Deng said, ‘You know what the lumps are?’ I said, ‘I have a feeling.’ It was dead Northern soldiers that they planted corn over. Deng reaches into the dirt – he saw something I didn’t see – he reaches in, and he pulls the top of a soldier’s uniform shirt out of the dirt. He shakes it. He throws it on the ground and says, ‘The North,’ and he walks away.
That happened in real time. That happened in front of me. It might have been a guy he killed. There was a battle the day he was there. That’s what I want on camera. I’ve been around stuff like that. I’m not a CNN correspondent. I’m some guy who goes places. I’ve been around stuff like that where you barely believe what just happened. You wish you had a camera crew.
I want the reportage, sure, but I want the story, and I’m good at getting the story because I genuinely care. When someone sees that you’re genuinely interested, they’ll tell you everything. That’s the key. You have to be sincere. People know when you’re dialing it in and they’ll shut down on you. I’ve interviewed a ton of people for a guy who doesn’t interview people.
So why the heck don’t you have a show???Because I go to, ‘Let’s kick it up a few more notches. Let’s talk about napalm and Agent Orange and Monsanto.’ [Laughs] I’ve pitched those shows to National Geographic because I was working with them for a while. They said, ‘Napalm?!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, a three-part series from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam about how defoliants and chemicals from America got into all three countries.’ They went, ‘Ha, ha, ha. A fat no.’
But that’s all there. If you go to Vietnam, you see fourth generation Agent Orange evidence. You see it. It’s the stories that don’t get told because they’re not pretty.