Music On... Photography
SEPTEMBER 20, 2011
The Nat Geo Music Interview: Henry Rollins Redux
Nat Geo Music Goes Behind The Lens With A Punk Rock Legendby Tom Pryor
On October 7th, 2011 musician/actor/writer/monologist/punk rock legend Henry Rollins will return to The National Geographic Society headquarters to discuss his latest book Occupants as part of our ongoing Music On... Photography series.
Occupants pairs Rollins's visceral full-color photographs from his global travels with urgent and powerful texts, documenting how the world's conflict zones and other emerging hotspots and how ordinary people get on with their lives in the face of hardship.
Nat Geo Music caught up with Henry by phone after his return from a recent trip to Haiti, to discuss his travels, his work as a photographer and how to charm a hostile crowd of Haitians.
Nat Geo Music: So let's begin at the beginning - when did you first get into photography?
Henry Rollins: Many years ago. Being someone who travels a lot, I just started taking pictures somewhere along the way. Mostly just to document when I'd been and what I'd done, as a kind of visual notebook of my travels.
A lot of your spoken word performances are a kind of verbal memoir, are the pictures you take a kind of memory aid for them? Or is it a separate process?
Sure. I think it's fair to say they're all connected in some way - but I never start out thinking "wow. That picture is going to make a great story". I respect photography as its own medium, with its own set of rules and its own set of skills. I'm not a professional photographer, and I don't want to sound like a pretentious asshole, but at the end of the day, I like to think that my photographs stand on their own.
When did photography turn into something serious for you?
As the years went by, the pieces I shot got more visually interesting, and as you get better you get a real camera, and you start to invest in real lenses and everything else. As a musician, I get photographed a lot, so I always had the opportunity to be around professional photographers and talk shop, get some advice here and there. I also have a good friend who's a professional photographer, and one day she was kind enough to take a look at my work and give me a few lessons. That's when I really learned the craft - how to shoot in manual, how to get my light and aperture settings right, and how to really read a situation visually. And the deeper I go into it, that's still what captivates me now.
So, for the gearheads out there, what do you shoot with?
I usually travel with two or three cameras. My mainstay is a Canon 1 DS Mark II, and I use a Canon 5D Mark II for backup, and then maybe a Lumix point-and-shoot. But I gotta say, I've been favoring the 5D more and more lately. 20 megapix and a couple of good lenses, and it's all the camera I need. The DS feels like a cinderblock after a few hours on your back and it just screams "journalist" when you're trying to be discreet. But the 5D lets me walk down a crowded street without drawing too much attention. I have to say that over the years my poundage of gear has steadily decreased.
Did you always shoot digital or did you learn with film?
No, I originally learned with film. I actually shot a lot with black and white film in High School. I even took that camera to California with me when I first moved out here back in the '80s. But it got lost in the sands of time - sacrificed to youth! [laughs]
Did you take a lot of photos during your Black Flag days?
Not enough! Back then it was more about taking snapshots in the moment, I wasn't very conscious of trying to document things - and some of the places and people I wish I had taken more pictures of. You know, at that age, when you're still basically a teenager, and you're touring all over the country, keeping a consistent photo journal isn't always your first priority. [laughs]
On the other hand, there are a lot of other people's photos of that time - mostly fans, not professionals - that really capture something of that era? pictures that I look at and immediately remember a show or a city or a venue or a person. And then there are others where I don't even recognize myself. [laughs]
Does being behind the lens affect the way you act in front of the camera now?
Definitely. First of all, it makes me a lot more sympathetic to photographers! Honestly, I hate having my picture taken, but when someone comes up to me with a camera now, I usually let them get the shots they need. Especially with amateur photographers or people just starting out professionally. If they think that a shot of me in their portfolio is somehow valuable, the least I can do is sit still until they get what they need. Even when they say it will "only take five minutes". Let me tell you: it never takes just five minutes...
Let's talk a little bit about your new book, Occupants - you cover a lot of ground: Afghanistan, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Mali, South Sudan, India, Kyrgyzstan, etc. How long was this project in the making?
Eight years, give or take. I do most of my traveling between tours. For me some years are inhale years and some years are exhale years. This is an inhale year, where I'm taking everything in, next year will be an exhale year - I'm doing something like 170 shows. Most of these pictures were taken in inhale years.
The book reports from a lot of conflict zones - do you find yourself attracted to that kind of action?
By conflict? No. I'm more interested in the human stories that are caught up in these big historical moments - the regular people who are just getting on with their lives in the middle of everything. One thing I've observed is that people have a remarkable capacity to just get on with things. At the same time, I'm also interested in how these personal stories and private lives intersect with what's happening in the world. As an American, I also look at this book as a document of the world at the terminal stages of our Empire - how the world is rearranging itself with and without us.
You get some very intimate shots in some very tough places - how do you manage that?
I go into these things very carefully, with a sense of empathy, not voyeurism. I either take the pics in a very subtle way or ask politely - a lot of times I'm already in a conversation with people anyway, so I'm already listening first. Listening is really important - sometimes people just need someone from the outside to hear what they have to say.
Also, being a musician abroad is also a kind of pass. You're not a journalist, or a political type, or from an NGO. You're just an entertainer, and people can relax a little more in otherwise tense situations.
Are there any shots you just won't take?
Sure. All the time. There's shots where I've backed off just not to be rude. One should always be respectful. Like if someone puts their hand up, I wouldn't take that shot. Even in refugee camps people have their pride and want to maintain their dignity, and you've got to respect that. It's the difference between being a tourist and a traveler, I think. And some cultures are just very modest - a lot of people in Senegal covered their faces when I asked to take their pictures, which is a shame, because Senegalese people are really beautiful!
Do you ever encounter any hostility or aggression when you're photographic people?
Sometimes, yeah. I was just in Haiti and I visited this tent city in Port-Au-Prince and these very angry dudes came out to greet me. I was just there on my own, with my cameras, a bunch of money and a local driver., Patick. When they asked me what I was doing there I just gave them my standard ice-breaker: "My name is Henry, and I'm here to meet you". Works every time.