Photo by: Kevin Morra.
Henry Rollins was gracious enough to take time to do a phone interview with Sinical Magazine about his photo journalism book: Occupants. On the phone, Henry is very calm and thoughtful in his answers. The publisher of Occupants is Chicago Review Press and the book is now widely available. Special thanks to Tresa Redburn, Laura Di Giovine, and Jack Mallein.
DS: Hello... Henry?
HR: This is Henry.
DS: This is Danny Stygion with Sinical Magazine. I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. I am a big fan.
HR: No problem.
DS: If you are ready, we will jump right into it.
HR: I am ready.
DS: Can you talk about the title of your book and where the idea came from?
HR: Well, I think that’s what we humans are. We are occupants. No one has any lasting purchase on life or on the planet. Here you can be a billionaire, like Mark Zuckerberg rich, but you are going to die and you are here for a while and ultimately all of your stuff is kind of like a rental. You burn it to the ground or you hand it off, but you are not leaving with it. You are sure enough going to leave and we humans kind of occupy space and our environment. Animals certainly occupy, but they also certainly adapt to their surroundings, and only when making a nest or a dam do they try and change their environment. Humans will take a rain forest and lose it and cover it with concrete. They will take the woods and turn it into a parking garage and I am not saying that’s bad. I am just saying that’s what we do. We occupy the planet with a vengeance. We seek to dominate it. With animals, not so much. With people, that’s what we do and that’s why I called the book that.
DS: How long did it take to you compile all the photographs and complete the book?
HR: Well, the photographs go from 03 to 2010. Like 7-8 years of information gathered.
Photo by: Kevin Morra.
DS: Did you learn photography and film processing on your own?
HR: No, I took photography in school as a very young person. I’m 50, so it was a long time ago. So I learned the basic ideas, like shutter speed, light, f-stop, etc. I had a camera in high school and took quite a lot of photos actually and then years later my camera broke or somehow disappeared into the sands of time. I was very broke, really broke for a long time, and could not afford a meal much less a camera. I went camera-less for many years and years later was able to afford to buy a camera and resume. So I had to kind of relearn things in a digital sense. I started doing digital photography, which is not that much of a leap. It is kind of the same thing. I had to teach myself Photoshop and all of that so I could get the photos from a raw file to what you see in the book. That’s kind of a learning curve, but that software wasn’t all that hard to deal with. It is what it is and with a bit of computer savvy and common sense you can kind of stumble through it. With a little trial and error you can scoop a photo 80 times and not hit save and you’re good to go.
DS: How did all your years of travelling change your world view and the view of yourself in it?
HR: Travelling as extensively as I do... the take away for me has made me very humble and very sympathetic to other people’s plight in the world and very desirous of being proactive in being part of a solution somehow and not part of a problem. It’s made me very patient and very grateful for where I live. You and I have some things in common in that today’s meals that we’re going to eat. [What] we really think about is what is it going to be and when can I have it? Not will I be able to find food? The fact that there is too much food, that we have to watch that we don’t eat too much, that is kind of our problem. In other parts of the world, that problem would be hard to explain to some people. A hot tub... why do you have all that water? You’re not going to drink it? No, we’re just going to soak in it. Really? You’re not going to do the wash in that water? No. You’re not going to clean yourself in that water? No. We’re just going to soak in it. People look at things differently. Imagine going to a village in Southern Sudan and try to explain to someone there the concept of life insurance or retirement. Go to Vietnam and say retirement. Retirement in another country is your body is too racked with pain and your hands are too arthritic from the life in the rice patty fields, so you can’t work anymore. So you move in with your son and his new wife takes care of you because that’s how families work there. I raise you and later on, you are going to help me in my old age. There’s no retirement, there’s just a few years of non-work by the fire with someone bringing you some tea and relative peace and playing with the grandchildren. But there’s no going to Disney World and getting in the RV. Those are Western realties and that’s not just American. That goes for a British person or an Australian person. There’s vast swatches in the world where they might not even have words in their language to describe those things. So going through those environments as many times as I have it makes me think differently about everything from water, to food, to life and death, to the meaning of money, employment and labor, etc. It changes my view on everything. It definitely makes me view America differently and the West.
DS: We definitely take things for granted.
HR: Well, yes... and no, if you are given no other perspective, what other conclusions are you supposed to come to? And that’s why I can’t bust on America. You take it for granted? It’s all I know. Shut up. If you are a kid in Beverly Hills, (I am not putting down people who live in Beverly Hills) if that kid knows private school and a credit card... you can’t say the kid is taking life for granted. He is taking the life that was given to him. Now what he does in life as an adult will be under more scrutiny, but to a certain degree you got what you got. You know what you know. I am a white guy in America with an education, albeit high school, but a pretty good one. Another guy from a different demographic or different ethnicity in America can look at me and say, “You take a lot for granted.” Well... okay. I just live in a white male American reality, where I hear you but I don’t know if I necessarily read you. I do think that Americans are poorly served by their media, at times extremely poorly served by their elected officials who are non responsive to majority feelings and cut off to a certain degree from the affairs of the world. And isolated therefore kind of like veal, in that, we are on our way to the slaughter with blinders on sometimes. Probably over half of America does not have a passport. If young people could spend two weeks of their life in India or pick an African country to go to for 2-3 weeks and really see how life can be. That might be a good thing. That might be a real good thing because I think they would see things even if the trip was a nightmare. I think they might understand more of the mechanics of the world.
Occupants. Published by: Chicago Review Press.
DS: You mention a lot about the human spirit. People's nature to survive. Did you get any hope in humanity in all of this?
HR: It made me see what an adaptive species homo sapiens is. Humans are pretty amazing at living pretty much anywhere and so that makes me optimistic that perhaps humanity will be able to survive itself, because the reality is that we are going to have problems with water in this century. And the fact that we are going to have problems with fossil fuel is a given. Some people don’t want to admit it. They are just defending their corporate interests. The truth is they know full well that we are going to have problems with petroleum products. So the reality is, in this century homo sapiens as species either figures it out or loses the plot. It’s not next century. It’s this century. So we got 90 more years by and large to figure this out and that’s not a lot of time in the scheme of things. It’s more time than you are going to be around. It’s more than a lifetime for you and me. So it’s a whole lot of time. I remain hopeful that science, innovation and kindness will come to the fore as things become more and more tense in parts of the world. I think what you are seeing in the world right now is kind of a leveling or an attempt to level the playing field. And Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, this occupy Wall Street thing happening in America [when] compared to what happened to Cairo is quite anemic. But we’ll see what happens. Because people in Cairo were basically willing to come home with a bullet in them or a skull fracture. I don’t know if Americans are really ready, willing, and able to throw themselves at that. I can’t see myself as part of that group, because I already know the outcome.
DS: With our economy and our involvement in several wars... where do you see America going?
HR: Well... our economy... I can tell you exactly where the economy is going. It’s going to China, Honduras, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam, Cipan, and any other place where you can pay people peanuts and have them work like dogs. All of the jobs have gone away to satisfy the stockholders, so that’s where the economy has gone. These major multinational corporations do not see their futures in America. That is really not up for debate. They have proved it by taking their businesses elsewhere. So that’s where the economy is going. It went somewhere. Just not to America. And the money made? That went to the Cayman Islands and Switzerland. Not back here. Never to be taxed. Where is America going? America is going down a very rough road. That no matter who is in office... I think that will matter less and less. In that I think that Goldman Sachs and the Pentagon determine more of America’s outcome then any president or any congress, that sounds a bit cynical, but I think I am right. Without money you are not paying your mortgage. You are not paying your rent and no money leads to no water and then you are dead in 72 hours. So when I see jobs consistently not coming back and people arguing about tax cuts... It does not matter how you cut taxes. You can cut taxes all day long to the job creators and businesses. If there’s nobody to buy the pizza, their pizza guy is not going to hire more employees. It doesn’t matter how much you cut his taxes. We don’t have the money to buy pizza. So what I’m saying is America has a job deficit because hundreds of thousands of jobs went elsewhere. Not because Obama raised your taxes. He, in fact, lowered them. They are lower. I don’t know how much more one can do. So when your insurance is coming from a company that’s profit based... your Health Care is going to be coming from a profit margin consideration. So here’s what happens to America... the rich survive and everyone else gets ready to work 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 jobs and what do you get? Blade Runner. Welcome to your science fiction. Your 21st century. I think that’s where it goes. The rich get richer and everyone else... the middle class kind of starts dropping lower and lower.
DS: You speak about paying an emotional and intellectual cost in all of your projects. What have you gained from this? Do you feel you have gained anything spiritually?
HR: Spiritually? Is that what you said. Oh no, I don’t do that. I don’t have any spiritual anything. You know, you shoot a guy with a gun, he dies. You step on a bug, the bug dies. There is no heaven for me and no hell. And certainly not any Karma. So you do what you do while you can and then you die. Capitalism does what it does and money doesn’t belong to anybody. It just stays in someone’s wallet for a while, then it goes somewhere else. It always goes somewhere and it is always about to go somewhere. So I just kind of take those blaringly obvious truths and go from there. So I have a firm belief in capitalism. I believe it’s there. I don’t always like the rough elbows of it, but I believe it’s there. I live my life through the prism of capitalism and physiological limits and eventualities. In all of that, there is no spirituality required. No God and karma is needed for the numbers. I live my life by the numbers. Not only am I an American, I am an Americanist.
"Saigon Vietnam Duck Hunters". Photo by: Henry Rollins.
DS: In your book you speak about the few "universal truths". What are the "universal truths" to you?
HR: Well, the infirmities of humans. Like I said, without water, after a few days, you’re dead. If you go below a certain degree of temperature, if you’re not protected, you die. It doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank, mother nature will kill you. The cobra bite will kill you. The crocodile will kill you. So all of those eventualities, those truths, that’s those human truths. All of the things that the bible warns you of being: jealous, covetous, murderous, selfish, etc., that’s kind of how humans are. I am not putting it down. I have at times, been all of those things. I’ve never killed anybody... but I’ve definitely thought about it. But that’s how we are. That’s what happens when you put people together and put them into societies and cultures and have laws and the idea of justice. You get all of that. From all of those things you derive your human truths. You know, beyond the big ones, like birth and death. The rest like jealousy and all of that... you know? Like I want what that guy’s got. How did he get it? Well... that is a whole other discussion, but I want it. The bible saw as well that can get a lot of people killed, so let’s try and steer people away from that. I am not an expert on the bible. I am just saying. There are religions and social and moral awareness in any society that gets passed immediately. Those human truths. All cultures address them. It depends on their take on things, that’s where religion comes in, and I kind of lose interest.
DS: Occupants is a journal of your travels and moments that you captured on film. Are there any moments that you didn’t capture that stick out in your mind?
HR: Well there are things that happen so quickly. A better cameraman can capture them, but if the light is not bright and you hoist up your camera by the time you’ve dialed in your settings, that moment is 8 exits down the highway. So yeah, there are eye blink moments where you’re like “Aaahhhh, I wish,” but those are too many to catalogue. Nothing really sticks out. When you start thinking as far as what’s a good photo, unfortunately everything starts looking like a good photo. When I know everything I look at... I just look at something and I think of how I would shoot that. Right down to the light setting and the f-stop.
DS: What was the most interesting place that you’ve visited?
HR: As far as the countries in that book, the most interesting place by far was Afghanistan. Just because it is a place that I cannot see myself living. The hardness of the people and the history of the country is just so completely intense. I’ve been there a couple of times. It just commanded my awe very much. If I could go back there and not really be convinced that I could get killed, and I am truly convinced that I could die there, I would go back there. But I wouldn’t want to roll the dice on Kabul by myself, because I really think getting killed is definitely a possibility there. A very good possibility. I’m not a thrill seeker. I’m not looking to get kidnapped. I’m not looking to get a shot at. I’ve been shot at. I didn’t like it. So if I could go to Kabul and not die, I would go back to Afghanistan as soon as I could. And, that was the most interesting place that I’ve been to.
DS: You’ve worked with a lot of U.S. troops. How is the morale of the soldiers?
HR: The people I’ve met in the seven U.S.O. tours that I’ve done... the morale was great. I’ve met highly motivated people who are incredibly good at their jobs, extremely skilled, and I have nothing but amazing amounts of respect for these people. Also kind of awed by their job and what their job requires. You know you go out on a patrol that day outside of your base in Baghdad and you might not come home from that and these people do it everyday. I can’t honestly get my head around that. I don’t know how I would handle that. Let’s put it this way, I don’t know if I could handle that. I really don’t. I can’t just blindly say well, “If I had to I would.” If I had to, I don’t know if I could. Knowing that, while I disagree with our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have nothing but respect and admiration for the men and women deployed in these places.
"Afrika Moni". Photo by: Henry Rollins.
DS: What is the significance of Afrika Moni, who the book is dedicated to?
HR: Oh... Afrika? The guy at the front of the book. He is just a really bright light. He is an amazing guy who is really looking out for all the people in that township. Inside that township you have a lot of HIV positive people. A lot of people are very at risk. Afrika is just this relentlessly optimistic and ridiculously charismatic guy. I made him a promise several years ago. I said every time I come to South Africa I am going to come and visit you and make a donation to this township and he said “okay.” So for two trips I’ve done that. The last time I was there I took that photo of him and the whole book is dedicated to him. He doesn’t know that... yet. I’ll be seeing him in May of next year and I am going to present to him a copy of the book and also to Kenny. Kenny is at the end of the book. Kenny is a guy I’ve hung out with a couple of times who is HIV positive living there. It was Afrika Moni who told him to go get ALV treatment. Without Afrika demanding that he go get treatment, Kenny would be dead by now. So they are an interesting pair of people. An inspiring person and one who was inspired.
DS: Is there anywhere in the world that you would like to travel to that you haven’t, yet?
HR: Is there any place in the world that I would like to travel to? Yeah. More of the “stans” I would like to get to. As in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan. I would like to get out to the region in the Caspian sea. I would like to go there. I would like to get to Darfur. I would like to get to Khartoum in Northern Sudan. I would like to get to Zimbabwe. I would like to go back to North Korea, if I could. I would like to go to Yemen. I would like to get to Kashmir. Most of those destinations I will get to.
DS: What was your impression of North Korea?
HR: It was intense. It was a week of propaganda. You spend 7-8 hours a day being told how great Kim Jong Il is. How he invented math and agriculture, the solar system, how happy and prosperous everyone in North Korea is, and how much they love life. And what are you going to do? Argue? So you just go “okay.” There is no discussion to have, because these people can’t be swayed, and if they could, they would be seen as being a traitor. And so you just kind of go for the ride and go “okay, this is trippy” and you do it. Well I did.
DS: Henry, are you working on anything else, currently?
HR: Yeah... like 4 different books, an upcoming tour, getting things together for that, which will be around 14 months. Those things keep me busy. I have a weekly radio show and a weekly newspaper column and so I have deadlines and an editor I answer to and these book projects that take agonizingly long amounts of dedicated time to complete. I am basically working 7 days a week. When I am not eating, sleeping, or working out, I am working on one of these projects which I am just damned determined to finish.
DS: And my last question is: How do you want to be remembered?
HR: None of that really matters to me. Once I am gone it’s not up to me. All I can do is just do stuff while I am alive and hopefully that track record will speak for itself. So... if the truth is told how I want to be remembered... as someone who cared. Someone who worked really hard and someone who didn’t sit around. If I could be remembered in a way, that would be it. Whether I will be remembered at all, I really don’t get to choose, unless I shoot someone famous. It’s not really anything I have much control over. |
Publisher: Chicago Review Press (October 1st, 2011)