Interview with Henry Rollins: Punk Rock World Traveler
Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the musician about his new book of photographs and how travel has humbled him
11.02.11 | 12:40 PM ET
From his early days fronting the legendary punk rock group Black Flag to his politically charged spoken-word performances, Henry Rollins has earned a reputation for his outspoken, take-no-prisoners style. Now he has published a powerful book, Occupants, which reflects the same approach to travel photography. It features images—sometimes beautiful, sometimes disturbing—taken by Rollins in troubled and hard-to-reach places around the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. Rollins’ reflective and often stream-of-consciousness writing accompanies each photo. It turns out that Rollins is a hardcore traveler and a serious reader of writing about the world: He’s a big fan of the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, for example, whose books represent “some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered.” I called Rollins this week to ask him about his own book and travels.
World Hum: Was there any single trip you look back on that convinced you that travel was important, or that made you think you should be doing more of it?
Henry Rollins: Not any single trip, no. But in rock ‘n’ roll and the other touring I do, I get to see a fair chunk of the world. Europe, a lot. Which is nice. But it’s not the world. It’s just Europe. Australia, New Zealand. Sometimes Japan. And the odd date in Singapore. We went to Moscow. We went to Warsaw. Pretty cool. But it’s not going to get you to Egypt or Djibuti, or the Middle East. So at one point in the ‘90s, I was talking to a journalist who said, “You do a lot of travel.” I said, “Yeah, but I’ve never been to Africa.” And it stuck with me. Why not? I’m curious. I’d like to see the Sphinx. I’d like to meet a Masai tribesman. What’s my excuse?
So I decided, I’m going to go to Kenya, Madagascar and South Africa. It was 1997, I believe. And it was mind-blowing to see such a different part of the world. Kenya was the first place I landed. The first thing you see when you come out of the cloud cover is this herd of zebra moving out of your way. You land in a small plane and you disturb the zebra. So they all run. My mind was completely blown. It was basically weeks of that. Like, look out for the elephant! Don’t let the monkeys get into your tent! Okay, duly noted. It was great to have my mind expanded like that. Then I said I’d better go to Africa every year, and I’ve pulled it off almost every year. One thing led to another and I was going to the Middle East, Southeast Asia. A buddy of mine, a diplomat, said, “We’re living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and we can get you a diplomatic visa. Want to come visit?” Uh, yeah! It’s hard to get into that country. I got a visa for Iran; that took couple of years. Finally got a visa for North Korea. I went there about a year ago.
How often do you travel these days?
I go now for up to one fiscal quarter at a time. I just travel the world with my backpack and my cameras and a bunch of Clif bars. I hit the streets every day with no real plan besides walking and seeing what happens or taking a taxi across town and finding my way back. Or I look out the top of the hotel and see an area and say, okay, I’m going there today—that slum, that village. I go through souks and bazaars and stores. People come up and ask, “My friend, what are you doing here?” My icebreaker is, “I’m here to meet you.” Which is true, and also sometimes cracks them up. They say, “Me?” I say, “Oh yeah, man, I’m Henry, what’s happening?”
I’ve had that conversation in Islamabad, Beirut, Tehran, and I’m still here. I think when you show genuine curiosity, and when you’re confident enough to walk alone with a smile on your face, people think, he really wants to be here. And you ask a question, and all of a sudden you’re getting invited in for tea and food. If you’re polite and show due respect, I think people get it. It’s almost canine and instinctive, and when you’re being disingenuous, they get that, too. But when you’re being genuinely kind, it’s so disarming. Sometimes you might be a nice guy but you wear your country’s policies and your president’s policies. Traveling under Bush in some of these countries, you’re hoping that people can see the difference between you and the people who have been elected in your name.
I’m curious about travel’s impact on you and your evolution. I gather you started out in life as a pretty pissed off punk. How did travel change the way you see the world, or yourself in the world? I know for me, it’s been such a humbling experience.
Yeah, that’s my experience. Humbling to the point where you have major regrets about some of the stupid things you said, some of the things you thought were right. You keep going to these countries, and it’s like, you forgot the lesson from the last time. Because the first person you encounter kind of bitch-slaps you upside the head in the most wonderful, innocent way and you realize, God, I’m still an asshole. And this guy, by doing nothing except being broke and so incredibly polite—it takes you aback, you realize, I’m still not there yet. I still have like eight miles to go before I can even get into the parking lot of humility. I have to keep going back. It’s like going back to a chiropractor to get a readjustment. That’s me in Africa, that’s me in Southeast Asia. You come back humbled and you bring that into your life. It’s made me much more tolerant of other peoples—and I’m not saying I used to be a misogynist, or I used to be a racist, that was never my problem. But I can be extremely headstrong, impatient, rude. Like, “Hurry up, man. What’s your problem? Get out of my way.” That sentiment comes easy to me. Going to these countries, you realize none of that is necessary, none of it’s cool, it’s nothing Abraham Lincoln would do, and so why are you doing it? Those are the lessons I’ve learned.
Also, as a young person I didn’t like humanity. They used to throw things at me, spit on me, literally fight me. Traveling the world, you see so many people who have so little by Western standards. When you have only a T-shirt and a plastic bowl to your name, life comes right at you like a knockout punch. These journeys have made me appreciate the resiliency and buoyancy of homo sapiens. The fact that you can go to a place like Vietnam where we just toxified, burned to the ground and defoliated that country to the point where they’re still having developmental problems with kids from Agent Orange four generations later—I’ve seen it—and they bend over backwards to be friendly. And you go to parts of Africa like Southern Sudan where they’re literally walking over the bullet casings from a 22-year war and they go out of their way to make sure you’re fed. And you’re like, okay, what am I doing beeping my car horn at this guy?
As a 50-year-old man, I’m now able to retain this a lot more, use it, and perhaps have it rub off on others. It took these unforced journeys that had no work attached—there was no stage waiting for me in Morocco, I just wanted to go and check it out. After 13 or 14 years of this kind of travel, really frequently, the humility is now in my DNA. I’m not beyond a re-up, I certainly need it, but a whole lot of that dye is now on my tongue, whereas before I would lose it after a couple of months back in America.
I love that. I can relate.
I think that’s a lot of people’s experience. I beg young people to travel. If you don’t have a passport, get one. Take a summer, get a backpack and go to Delhi, go to Saigon, go to Bangkok, go to Kenya. Have your mind blown. Eat interesting food. Dig some interesting people. Have an adventure. Be careful. Come back and you’re going to see your country differently, you’re going to see your president differently, no matter who it is. Music, culture, food, water. Your showers will become shorter. You’re going to get a sense of what globalization looks like. It’s not what Tom Friedman writes about; I’m sorry. You’re going to see that global climate change is very real. And that for some people, their day consists of walking 12 miles for four buckets of water. And so there are lessons that you can’t get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of that flight. A lot of people—Americans and Europeans—come back and go, Ohhhhh. And the light bulb goes on.
It’s a great anti-war deterrent, too, the more you go out into these places. You’ll never convince me that bombing Iran is a good idea. I had too much of a good time in Iran. Just unforced hospitality unleashed upon me everywhere I went. Literally, just walking around by myself. The only thing that sucked was the freezing weather. Otherwise, no one would let me spend money. Every dinner.
Do people recognize you there?
No. One of my friends is a human rights activist [and photographer] who had to leave, Shirin Neshat. She’s this 5-foot-3 stick of gorgeous Persian dynamite who had to leave Iran because she’s, you know, too free with the speech. She bugged me one day and said, “If you don’t go to Tehran, I’m going to murder you.” I said, “No, I want to get there.” She said, “Go and I promise you’ll have a great time and my friends will take care of you.” So she hooked me up. Dinner parties every night in different homes, interesting discussions and debates until 2 in the morning, some of the best food I’ve ever had, the best ice cream I’ve ever had. And walking the streets by day and getting into interesting conversations.
What I love about that is, you go a place like Tehran and have that experience and you come back and pick up the newspaper and read about Tehran and it’s never the same to you again. You now have a personal relationship with Tehran and the people there.
So how does an experience like that color the way you consume mainstream media about, say, Iran and U.S.-Iran relations?
Good question. It occurs to me that CNN, as neutral and sometimes milquetoast and mediocre as they can be, and they’re the nicest, and FOX news, they’re the professional wrestling, and MSNBC, they’re a blog that’s a TV show, all these outlets ultimately are pro-war—some people might argue with me—and pro-corporate bottom line. Whereas Al Jazeera, to me, that’s news. Where you get to hear the full soundtrack of what an Iraqi hospital sounds like full of people with no anesthesia, when you just hear nothing but human screams. That’s bringing it home. I’ve seen images on Al Jazeera that were really eye-opening. You don’t see dead Americans or dead people on CNN. I really want to. Well, I’m not morbid in that way. But I want Americans to see that. You’re voting for these people, you’re paying for this to happen. You should see a leg get sawed off. No, you really should. So you’ll never want to advocate to make that happen again. And so all this travel has made me quite the peacenik.
I don’t know how I started out politically—anti-racist, anti-homophobia, anti-whatever—just from growing up in D.C. and being punk rock. But it’s the travel that made me see, okay, we are destroying parts of Africa, we are brutalizing parts of South America, we are just opening up our toxic pants and pissing all over Eastern Europe and Central Asia, just dumping grounds for that which can kill you and your kids for five generations. So I come back to America saying yeah, regulation please, a lot of it. Deregulation looks like parts of India, where the air is going to shorten your life, or downtown Beijing, which at noon has fairly unbreathable air.
You’ve captured some beautiful and disturbing images. I know from my own experience that taking out my camera during my travels changes the dynamic instantly. People who were friendly can turn quiet or withdraw. Suddenly, you’re not just two people sharing a moment. You’re a photographer and a subject. How do you handle that?
Here’s what I do, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it because I’ve done it so much. The photos are okay, but the method has gotten better. I use a different camera body than I used to. I used to do a lot of travel with a [Canon] 1Ds Mark III, which is like wearing a cinder block all day and it just screams journalist. I mean, that thing, you can see it in the dark a mile away. You can’t say, I’m just a tourist, man. That’s pro. Now you’re that guy. And you walk into any scene and everyone stops. And if you hear the word “journalist,” start walking away quickly. That might not work out well for you.
So I went from making the 1Ds Mark III my primary body, to the 5D Mark II. I’m a Canon guy. It’s a smaller body. It’s all the camera you need for the street, 21 megapixels, great readout. And you can put any of your lenses on it. It reads like fairly well-heeled tourist. You can hide it under your arm easily, and all of a sudden you’re not that conspicuous. I don’t try to be sneaky. I don’t want to be like sneaky cam. I use the 16-35 mm lens if I want to get portraiture. For something like the photo on the cover of the book, I have to get up close to that guy. I have to be personal and say, “Hi, may I take your photo?” I’m not using a 70-200 mm where I can do it from across the street. I’m forcing myself to engage. And if I’m going to get the photo, you’re going to know I have a camera because I’m talking to you about taking a photo of you. It’s up to me to have my mechanics ready so I can go bang-bang-bang and be done, without having to even look down at my adjustments. I look at a guy or person or situation and just see the equation in my mind. I already know the ISO, here’s my F-stop. I dial it in, walk up and execute. And I’m out.
Another thing, very important: If I’m going down a long street into a slum or something, I will walk in and look around and say hello, make friends with all the kids who want to say hello, and then take photos on the way out. I do that so that, in case I’ve angered people on the way in by taking their photo, I don’t have to deal with them again when they’ve had time to mobilize, consolidate their anger and plan. Because I’m alone and I’m not bringing a weapon and I’m not going to fight. I don’t want to lose my gear and I don’t want to get my ear chewed off by an angry woman who I’ve somehow offended, because I’m so not looking to offend anyone.
You write about getting that look from a woman whose image is in the book.
She was the angry woman outside in Siberia waving a bag of dried fish at me. Oh well. I was hanging off the side of the Trans-Siberian Express and I saw her and took the photo. She just went back to vending the fish. It was like minus 50 or something. Anyway, I’m not looking to outrage and so I ask.
It’s interesting. In some cultures, you pull the camera out and kids run like you’ve startled a bunch of birds. In Senegal, the problem was there are some of the most photogenic people I’ve ever seen. I mean, these magnificent bone structures. I know I kind of sound like some kind of xenophobic Rudyard Kipling, but they’re beautiful people. They’re like the 6-foot-something uber-humans, these dazzlingly white teeth, amazing jaw bones, cheek bones; the women are goddesses, high foreheads, just ridiculously beautiful people. If you’re a photographer type, and interested in all that, you become very aware, or I do, at least, of texture, skin texture. I like to photograph people. I love the human form. More than just a hot-looking woman. I think men look good too.
There’s a photo of a woman picking through the garbage in Bangladesh. I said, “Can I take your photo?” and her scarf was down, and she nodded but took a moment to arrange her scarf to give herself some dignity. She was humoring me, to be polite. I had second thoughts about running the photo, but part of this book is to kind of stick the world in people’s faces. In parts of the world, beautiful elderly women with delicate hands eat garbage. So, before you hate these people, or voice all your complaints, look at what other people go through. It could happen here.