When Henry Rollins, former vocalist of punk band Black Flag in the ‘80s, describes his travels, he makes full use of his senses.
There’s the smell of fecal matter on a demolished Port-au-Prince street, the sound of gunfire in Baghdad, the taste of saffron ice cream in Tehran, the feel of blazing sunlight by the Niger River.
In his new photography book, “Occupants,” Rollins, now a disc jockey, spoken word artist, television host, actor and author, uses the fifth sense, sight, to document a decade’s journeys and illustrate human connections made along the way, giving readers a direct look at his experiences. He spoke about the book at an Oct. 7event at National Geographic Live. The event was part of a series, Music on…Photography.
“Occupants” covers a lot of geographic ground, including places touched by war, natural disasters or abject poverty. Through documentary work, USO tours and personal travel, Rollins visited countries that few Americans see.
By touring with various bands, Rollins became familiar with parts of town that aren’t featured in guidebooks.
“You see the part of the city where they let you make noise and throw beer cans,” Rollins said. “Not only in America, but all over the world I got to see a tougher part of town and how people live when they’re not all that well looked after. That made me want to know more.”
That curiosity hasn’t faded. Rollins sometimes went to great lengths to get the perfect shot. Take, for example, his photographs at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, site of the 1984 industrial disaster that ended thousands of lives. The plant, a subsidiary of an American company, leaked poisonous gas, causing health defects in surrounding populations such as cancer.
Rollins visited Bhopal 25 years after the tragedy. Each year, the people of Bhopal hold a memorial – an event which includes igniting a sculpture of the former Union Carbide CEO after carting it through town. Sneaking past armed plant guards, Rollins said he entered a broken window and photographed the building’s interior and exterior, including an ironically placed “safety is everybody’s business” sign on a wall.
Rollins’s photos showcase issues such as globalization or lasting effects of war. One taken in Thailand shows a cleaning woman wearing a face mask sweeping by a dancing, smiling statue of Ronald McDonald – a juxtaposition Rollins describes as “insulting.” Another shows the pensive faces of Vietnamese veterans who were receiving treatment for Agent Orange contamination acquired during the Vietnam War. A different picture shows several men in a massive Bangladesh slum, removing heads of discarded syringes – perhaps, Rollins said, to recycle them.
Though Rollins said much of what he documented was “draining” and “painful” to witness, a number of his photographs attempt to capture beauty amidst chaos. For example, one from the same Bangladesh slum shows several boys with big, playful smiles, grabbing each other by the arms.
“I love their physicality,” Rollins said of this photo. “It’s like a scene out of a [Charles] Dickens novel. You can tell just by looking at them that they’re kids of the streets, and they have to hang together to keep it working.”
His role was more than that of an objective journalist. Many faces in “Occupants” have a very personal story behind them. Some stories came to Rollins’ footsteps, like the Bangladeshi boys who demanded their photo be taken. Others began with a friendly smile on Rollins’s part and a single line: “Hi, I’m Henry, and I’m here to meet you.”
“If you just show your curiosity, people are happy to tell you a thing or two,” Rollins said.
Rollins said he is essentially a “voyeur,” able to return to his hotel at night, while his subjects remained where they were: a hurricane-ransacked New Orleans or a tent city in Haiti.
The book, he said, is his way of giving back to those who were so kind to him along the way, despite modest means or the fact that Rollins’ home country may have caused some of their suffering, such as the case of the Agent Orange victims.
“The photos I take, in my mind, is people standing up to all this,” Rollins said. “They’re saying, ‘I’m still smiling. You can’t beat me.’”