The Arts

Henry Rollins on photography, curiosity and human connections

Henry Rollins on photography, curiosity and human connections

Over the past several years, Black Flag frontman, actor and writer Henry Rollins began taking photos of the compelling people and hard to reach places that caught his attention while on tour. As time went on, the aspiring photographer stepped up his gear game and set off for the most far-reaching–and often dangerous–places he could find, shaking hands and snapping portraits along the way. Rollins published a detailed collection of his subjects and their stories in the 2011 book “Occupants”, and continues to share them today. On his ongoing “Travel Slideshow” tour, dropping by Albany on Jan. 20, he brings his most powerful stories to audiences around the country.

In a recent Q&A with The Alt, Rollins touched on the impact of his newfound form of expression and the way it continues to push him:

Katie Cusack: What kind of creative lens does photography offer you–as opposed to writing, making music, acting and public speaking?

Henry Rollins: You can tell a big story with a photo. It allows the person looking at it to form their own description. Writing is a great way to tell a story, of course, but a carefully taken photograph can tell a story as well. For me, an amateur, it’s another way to inform and express.

KC: Are there any major style or technical changes you have made over years of shooting?

HR: I’m much more aware of light and composition. I am trying to think differently, to take photographs that would get my attention. It hasn’t been easy but I think I’m getting better.

KC: You’ve spoken before about that difficulty to make a connection with a photographer as a subject, having been photographed so often in your life. Has your perspective changed while behind the camera, working with subjects who are rarely–if at all–posed?

HR: Having been in front of a camera so many times, I try to be quick when I have someone in front of mine. On the street, getting general activity, I try to be unobtrusive and not hanging around too long.

KC: Do you see yourself as a street photographer or an entirely different type of storyteller?

HR: Streets and people interest me the most. Some of the places I go to, what you’re seeing is so rich, I don’t know if I have the command of words to tell the story, so a camera is a good way to make sure I get it. Moments of human effort, struggle–I think I capture that better with a camera.

KC: You’ve also spoken about the cultural distance between the U.S./ Western perspective and the rest of the world. Can you talk briefly about the importance of making these connections with real faces, families and lives that we often blur or misrepresent?

HR: It can be difficult to sidestep your values and what you were raised with when traveling but I think you have to. In order to really be where you are, you must. I’ve gotten better at it and I think it’s allowed me to get to the truth of things better. The most profound part of traveling for me has been those connections. To see the differences in lifestyle but also how the similarities far outnumber those differences. I think when you are able to get past the “otherness” of a place, you can start to get an understanding. If you don’t at least try, then it’s not worth the air fare to go anywhere because you’re not leaving home.

KC: How do you choose your travel locations as time goes on? You’ve talked about locations like Islamabad and Pyongyang. Are you inspired to challenge locations that are viewed as  dangerous? Are you simply sparked by a previous location to visit someplace completely different? (I realize there is a lot to unpack here…)

HR: All of that. Any place where you’re warned against, I’m willing to go. I’m not a tough guy or anything but I am curious and if that gets me killed, oh well. Mainly, I want to go where I haven’t been before. Sometimes it’s intense, sometimes not. I just want to see a lot of things and go a lot of miles.

KC: Obviously you have had so many, but are there any human moments and connections stand out to you in your travels that come to mind right now? That feel most relevant?

HR: People I’ve met in Africa who are now dead, orphans in Haiti I met that I wonder about. All the teachers I met in South Sudan who are working hard to keep the girls in their classrooms from getting raped, just these incredibly strong people, they’re the ones that stand out.

KC: Why do you think it’s so important for us to make this kind of a connection with others? Why are we drawn to these stories?

HR: All I can do is speak for myself. I need to do it because life is short and I’m not interested in living like my parents or the people I grew up with did, so I have to go. I want to see the world and so, as hard as it can be, I do my best to get out into it. I think there is a fascination with seeing something you haven’t seen before, hence the success of travel shows, documentaries and the like.

Rollins will present photographs from his Travel Slideshow at The Egg in Albany on Saturday, Jan. 20.

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