There are few people I know of in this world who can do a perfect impersonation of former President George W. Bush, David Lee Roth and the sound of Sean Hannity’s head exploding.
One is Henry Rollins.
In his Travel Slideshow presentation, Rollins powered through nearly three hours of photographs from his zig-zagging travels around the world. Each photo has a backstory, including tidbits of the country’s history and culture, presented with hints of humor and melancholy. Some places are common haunts for Rollins, others he will likely never return to. However, they all seem to have provided insight for the artist’s socio-political awareness.
The 56-year-old punk rocker hasn’t lost an ounce of his spunk–despite his jokes about breaking hips and succumbing to teenagers who ask for his photo out of his fear of being thrashed by them. In some moments of his presentation, Rollins has audience members jolting out of their seats. Excitement bubbles up, breaking off his own sentences with passionate shouts of surprise, sarcasm and feigned rage.
“I wanted to go to every ‘Axis of Evil’ country, get a snowglobe and come back intact and say, ‘They were cool to me!’” he said of his North Korea visit, letting out a wolf-like howl.
He can’t seem to say no to any possible experience–taking the grueling 7-day ride on the Siberian Express, visiting the body of Kim Jong-il, exploring the poorly decorated palaces belonging to the many wives of a Saudi Arabian king, walking among scattered bones and buttons of the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek, Cambodia and illegally sneaking into the Union Carbide India Limited Plant, responsible for a gas leak that killed over 500,000 people in Bhopal.
Some instances were a bit hair raising. At one point, Rollins recalled his encounter with a recently dead body lying on the street in an Indian village. He sat next to it for up to 20 minutes, he said, just observing the perfect stillness of this stranger’s body until odd looks from passers-by prompted him to get up and walk away.
He talks about the delicate balance of communication between photographer and subject, reveling in the brief conversations and connections made from a shot, such as his interaction with a woman wearing a Black Flag t-shirt who couldn’t care less about some stranger named Henry Rollins. He makes friends in the packed streets of a market or parades of post-election celebrations. When groups of children demand that he take their photo, he takes the time to show the picture to each and every one of them.
“These kids have tough lives and they are unbreakable. They’re not going anywhere,” he says fondly.
He pulls back in others, such as a photograph featuring a young Bangladeshi girl and her parents digging in a garbage heap for food. He’s highly analytical–studying the details of his photos–like the vibrant color and crispness of the mother’s dress, the positioning of her hands–as if they could tell him intimate secrets.
“Maybe if the mom saw me she would have felt some humiliation, which would not have been my intent but [as] some western guy with a camera, it very well could have been the case. That’s the line you tread very carefully in parts of the world taking a photo–to not take anybody’s dignity,” he said.
Rollins teeters between the world of know-it-alls and curious adventurers. Sure, sometimes he offers too-simple solutions for our deepest fractures (like his belief that opening up tourism in North Korea would fix their global relationship and feed their people) but he essentially believes most international issues are rooted in bad leadership, not bad people. Through his photography, Rollins is creating a dialogue between cultures about our ideals, practices and complicated history–good and bad. It’s worth a listen, if anything it might just inspire you to buy a ticket and find something out for yourself.
Photo: Book cover of Occupants by Henry Rollins