Soccer Balls And Soap: Our Interview With Henry Rollins

I once heard a colleague refer to Henry Rollins as a Jack of all trades while we sat across from each other in a dismal office cubicle.

At the time I didn't really give it much thought, but if I had I might have countered with the remainder of the old saying that clearly doesn't apply, "master of none." And while I agree that he moves between mediums and projects at a breakneck pace, you have to understand that when Mr. Rollins gets his teeth into something, he goes at it full throttle until it's either perfect or lying there with its throat ripped out.

Either way, you never end up with something half-baked.

Hey, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about the book today.
No problem.

Before I start congratulating you on a job well done, let me just say that Occupants is not at all what I expected.
No matter what your reaction was, that pleases me. I've done a lot of books and I tried to make this one really different. I mean, I've never done a photo book but I tried to take it a little further than that, hence all the writing. That was way more time intensive than the photos, actually. The photos, you kind of put your finger on the button but the writing was a real bear to kind of drag myself through. I was trying to do something where there are people who dig what I do who go, "OK, this is different, I didn't know what I was getting." We sent out two thousand of the books last week and I had signed up all the preordered and I guess that they are arriving because I am getting hit with lots of emails now from all the people and their reactions. I'm getting some "Wow, this was worth it. Nice going."

Besides being visually stunning which all good photography books should be, I always think that as the lens man you can kind of take yourself and whatever your opinions may be out of the shot and just leave it be for the reader to interpret. The writing that accompanies these shots makes you linger for longer than maybe you would have originally. Having taken these over such a long period of time, did you write the text while going along or after these where compiled for the book?
The text was afterward and there are a couple of reasons why. One is cynical and one is artistic. I found myself looking at these photos later while I was deciding that this could be a photo book. If you go through the book, you will see a photo of a very small boy standing alone. I think it's in Mali, 2009.

He's basically standing by himself and if you look closely his belly is showing signs of malnutrition. That writing, that piece that accompanies that photo, that was the first thing I wrote for that book. And I just wrote it. I was looking at the photo and I wrote that and I said to myself, "That's interesting" because it doesn't have a whole lot to do with the actual photo, it's some sort of abstract prismatic take away. And so I thought, what if I put a few of those in the book, as it was an interesting exercise to get that chunk of writing. I mean, it's not like it's Moby Dick or anything. It's like a hundred and fifty words of whatever it is but that photo took my brain on an interesting ride. As far as layout and design, and ultimately you have to think in those terms, and here's where the cynicism comes in: if I just do a photo book, there's a danger of it being seen as a vanity project of some celebrity type which, believe it or not, some people consider me to be. I don't consider myself like that and you don't.

You're a vain bastard.
Well but usually people, to be derisive, will say "you Hollywood people" and I'm all like, "I am?" because I don't feel like that. What I didn't want people to say was, "Oh, it's just a money-making vanity project." Sure, all of my books are vanity projects. I own the press, I own the book company, so I just put them out but the thing that really bugged me was that anyone would think that I'm just after their money. I'm just going to take a few snaps, put it in a book, and sell it to these suckers. That's what I don't want anyone thinking about anything I do because it's not ever my intent.

So conceptually I started wondering, "What if I started writing something for all of these photos?" and it began. I showed the writing to someone I was going out with at the time and she said, "Wow, that's some pretty strong stuff." She didn't say whether it was good or not, but she did say it was strong. So I said, "OK, it got a reaction." I think she was just playing poker.

I can't imagine someone having a mild reaction to some of the stuff that's written here, especially since some of it actually changed my perspective and opinion on the photograph.
Yeah, some of that writing is a bit pungent. About four or five of those pieces into it I said, "OK, I'm going to do one of these for pretty much every photo in the book," which I did. I wrote a big intro chapter and just let the photos kind of play out, but for the rest of it, it turned into this writing where I would look at the photo, kind of store it in my mind, and let the thing kind of get distorted where the writing might not have anything to do with the photo as far as you can see. In doing it this way, the manuscript part started to swell and it became quite this onerous task.

That kind of writing is not pleasant

No, it's not actually
I know, it's perhaps not fun to read and it's definitely not fun to write. Like when I write for the LA Weekly, it's 800 to 1100 words a week. That is writing I enjoy. It's fun. It's topical. I can be funny. I talk about music. It's great. It's challenging if I'm writing it at sound check before a show, but I guess that kind of adds to it. The writing that you see in Occupants is writing that I can do. It's true. It's real, but it hurts. It's depressing to put myself into that and you notice how selfish I am. It's all about "poor little me" and yet I'm going to inflict this upon people who are crazy enough to like what I do so they'll pony up the cash and subject themselves to this. I had to take that under consideration, like am I about to unleash this massive chunk of misery to a bunch of people who are kind of up against life already?

Thinking of the people, I like that.
I don't know what else to do, in that I think that is what the thing to do is. The woman I work with, Heidi, had a huge part in how this book looks and was instrumental in this book even coming out. Her take on the writing was very interesting and very good. She kind of said, "Who are you to tell these people how to interpret or what to take away from these? You are influencing someone's take on the photo and why aren't you letting them have the freedom to dig the photo on their own?"

Nugget of wisdom. Listen to her.
I know. I was like, "Wow, I can't argue with that." I really can't, I still can't. It's probably the most astute observation on the making of the book that happened. The publisher, Chicago Review, they loved the idea of lots of words. You know, more stuff. That's cool. She also said that I should put the writing in the back and that was an early idea. If you look at the back of the book, you'll see the shrink ups where there's the caption with the information on where we were and here's the year. She thought that should be in the back. You know, let the people have the photos and then if they feel like it, they can go to the back, see the shrink down and the caption and your crazy take on it. That was the original layout of the book.

The large-scale pics up front have more of an impact but I do like the way it turned out with the text and then the shrink downs did make it into the final layout obviously. I thought I was done with the book and I was like, "What the hell are all these extra pages back here?" Like a surprise dessert after a good meal.
Thanks. I flexed the earlier idea with the publisher about the left side of the page having the writing and then this image. This was only the second time I've used a publisher that wasn't me.

They did a fantastic job by the way.
They've been kicking so much ass, there really is no down side to working with them. The editor who worked so hard on this thing, he's a real taskmaster but the book is all the better for it. He mentioned to me that everyone there was loving the initial idea of the writing and the photo and I expressed Heidi's sentiment and they said, "Yeah, duly noted and that is true, but screw it. It is your book. It is your lens. It's the fact that these are the photos you chose and this is how you've chosen to edit them and present them." That's a good argument too. Just as valid as the other one if you think about it.

So I said, "OK, well then we'll do it that way as long as I can have the thumbnails and the captions in the back" and of course another idea was to put the caption and the writing on one page and we kind of laid that out for a minute and it got really odd looking. It became too clogged. The book you see, it's kind of the ultimate decision of different conceptual ways of trying to get you, the combatant, get through the book. Hopefully the reaction is "I didn't know what to expect, and wow that was different."

Back to the cynical take: I didn't want people thinking this is somebody really high on his own fumes thinking he can just sell me a forty dollar photo book of his holiday snaps. The writing took years. When we were really getting ready to put this thing to print, I had to finish up the writing. There were a few of the photos where I just couldn't relate to them in a writing way and I just sat there until I could last year over what was the Christmas holiday, or whatever you might call that. For me, it's when I'm here in my office alone. I usually travel and try to embed myself in some country and just do it. I came here to the office literally every day and I just hammered on that book, two shifts a day. Day shift, go home, eat, work out, and as F. Scott Fitzgerald would say, "live inside the book" and I'd come back and I'd do the night shift. The only compensation was hot caffeinated drinks and music.

That sounds painful. Well not the coffee and music, but the other part.
If I was really good, I got to go get the frozen yogurt down the street. That's the good boy at the end of the night.

You're depressing me, Henry.
That's kind of lightweight I know, but it's how I roll. So December, early January, the book was in full fury finish this damn thing and get it to the printer or at least get it to Chicago Review where they can sign off on it and that is basically the book you hold in your hands.

Well now I feel sad that I made you think it was hard to slog through because it wasn't. Even though some of the pictures are harrowing a lot of it is uplifting and funny. I love the photo of the woman in the Black Flag tee shirt halfway across the world.
For me it's the kids. Like those kids in Bangladesh, all those boys that are leaning together, you know the one?

Yes, that's a great one.
Their physicality, it says a lot to me. The way they are all touching and they have no reservations about being that closely knit and you realize that they've got to rely on each other. Some of those kids could be brothers but in a way they are spiritually and perhaps biologically too, but that's the reflection I got of all these countries I go to. The youth are just dealing with their surroundings. That graveyard photo of those kids in Jakarta, again the expression on the lead kid's face, it's just such a quizzical, interesting look. He's just sort of scowling, staring me down, and I don't know how to read that but most of these kids their look is just so hopeful and so untarnished by the situations they are probably going to be living in for their whole lives. It's an interesting point of view for a Westerner.

Being from a place with warm comforts and plenty of food this must seem like Mars for ninety percent of us.
Yeah, I'm taking all these photos and I'm walking back to a nice hotel at the end of the day, showering off after a good workout in the nice gym, and eating a really good dinner at the hotel restaurant that night. And of course to us these are cheap hotels but you can live very well very cheaply in certain parts of the world. Like the best hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti where I just was, was a hundred and fifty bucks a night which is like Motel 6 price but the hotel is nice. Money is a different thing there.

Haiti is still such a wreck at this point, I can't even begin to imagine spending ten minutes there.
It's just awful, I mean the people are cool but the center of town looks like, and I have the photos to prove it, the city looks like it got rocketed and it's nineteen months later. I don't understand.

Well , it's out of the news. Haiti's fifteen minutes on the front page of CNN expired, so it's on to the next thing.
Yeah, I'll say. There is one intersection there that's so bad it's affectionately known as Kosovo. I drove through it the other day with this guy Jimmy, a driver fellow, and I heard all the doors on the car go auto lock so I just laughed and said, "Pretty bad, huh?" and he looked at me and said, "This is Kosovo" so I'm like, "OK, I'll just get down."

So the stuff in the book is like that and a lot of those photos I'm but a voyeur in that I'm going to go back to a nice hotel. It's air-conditioned and I'm going to drink my bottled water and I'm going to have a non-toxic meal and go to sleep in cool mosquito-free comfort. The people I took a photo of four hours before? Not so much. I don't really have a guilt trip with that. I mean, it is what it is and there's nothing I can really do about that more than what I'm doing now, which is I try to leave a lot of money in these countries.

Like the other day in Haiti, I just kind of improvised. You go to tent cities and you kind of find the leader guy of the pack. The mayor and I go back and forth with this guy who is speaking Creole but I've got a translator and I'm like, "I'm just one guy, I'm not World Vision, I'm not the Red Cross, so what can I do for you today?" And they all said the same thing pretty much which is some soccer balls for these kids and some soap. I said, "OK, I'll see you in an hour" and I go change up some money, go to the local markets, buy all the soap I can find which was fifty dollars worth of eight cent bars of soap and every soccer ball the place had. Went back and said, "OK, can you use this?" And of course they said, "Yeah." So it was on to the next tent city and we did this for three days until my time was up and I left.

Soccer balls and soap, guess that says a lot about the state some of these places are in.
Well soap goes a long way, it's all about the dignity of being able to wash up. You and I we just walk into the shower and we don't even think about it. After three days in that heat you smell like something else. Just the idea that you can wash your shirt and even though you are living in a tent city, at least be presentable and not looked down upon. It's not the first time I've given soap to someone. Last year I was in Southern Sudan with Drop In the Bucket and I gave a chunk of soap to a tribe, a group of Mundari, nomadic cattle people, and it was a big deal and the smiles came out. They know that Drop In The Bucket are the ones who come with the big blue bars of soap.

And of course they dig the wells. They do wonderful work all over the world.
I'm on the team, I've been working with them for years. I'm going to be hosting the big soiree on November 30th and I go to Africa with them. I'm kind of in with them up to my hips and I can tell you after being on the ground with them in Uganda and Sudan, it is no bullshit. They get it done. It's real.

From what I know of them they are not so much with the talk but big on the action.
They are huge on the action.

Next week you are going to be making a stop at the Music On Photography series at National Geographic's Grovsner Auditorium.
That starts off a shameless month of flogging my new book. I've spoken at the Nat Geo theater before and as you know, I do documentaries with them.

Snakes! Blech.
I'm kind of real deep in that camp at this point. It's going to be great, I'm looking forward to it and I kind of have to send them the final photo files later today.

Did they let you choose the photos you are going to speak about or do they have some say in that?
I am giving them the contents of the book and whatever photos they pick, well it's like which one of your kids do you want to put onstage?

You have just been thrust into your first Sophie's Choice dilemma. Minus real children.
They're all cute to me. There's a story behind all of them so I don't particularly care in that any thirty of them will be fine for me.

It's a great to see the photographs up there on the huge screen . With the lights down low, they have such impact at that size.
Yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing my stuff at that size. I'm lucky to have a very large monitor here at my office so when I look at these photos I kind of look at them on this big Macintosh screen that I have. It's a high resolution shot most of the time, so when you blow it up that big it still looks pretty slamming.

It's very easy to be very impressed with yourself when you look at something that big. You think, "Wow, I sure can take em." So yeah, I think this will be a good event and I hope people show up.

Are you ever without your camera at this point?
Not abroad. I see people who have their camera in the supermarket and I can dig that but I'm not quite there yet. If I did that it would probably still be sitting in an airport in that in a sleep-deprived state, I need to be very careful of anything that's not in my backpack as far as getting left behind. All those photos that you saw were from trips, for the most part, that I just go on by myself with a camera and a backpack, protein bars, and dry socks. I'm basically on a photo cultural op. I'm out there putting sweat stains into my camera and some of those environments are so hot, so moist that I would have to put a towel on my shoulder because so much sweat would be running down my arm.

You can ruin your camera like that. Salty sweat and cameras don't mix well. That happened to me in the third circle of hell once.
I asked some camera men what the biggest danger for a camera was and they told me it was salt water. No matter what you do, even if you use those pelican cases, you are going to lose the camera.

You almost need to have two or three if you're going to take them places like that.
I travel with two bodies, minimum two lenses and my lead camera used to be a 1Ds Mark III which is like having a cinderblock around your neck all day.

So you're a Canon man, huh? You can kill someone with that camera, it's like a weapon.
Including yourself after wearing it all day, it becomes the albatross. My back up was the 5D Mark II which is all the camera a guy like me needs. The 5D has turned into my primary because it looks touristy enough. When you walk down the street with a big camera, everything stops and you are going to be in a situation that gets hot, you know like tempers, you look like a journalist and they don't always fare that well. With the smaller body you can come off as a tourist and you can get better people shots, so now that is my camera.

OK, Henry. Thanks for talking to us today.
See you soon.

Occupants is now available.

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