Photography’s seeming proximity to reality has been an important tool for exploring culture and its values. In some ways, it is kind of astonishing that writer, publisher, actor, singer, political commentator and radio DJ Henry Rollins had not added photography to his body of work prior to this project. Occupants focuses on Rollins’ travels around the world from 2003 to 2010, and it is not solely a photographic venture; it is also a written undertaking. In the first section of the book, Rollins displays some apprehension, mostly due to his lack of photographic skills, but he also fears that some viewers will find the work to be ostentatious. The images themselves are straight photography, but the style changes from country to country. The shots of Burma seemed right out of National Geographic magazine, but the photographs from Northern Ireland seemed influenced by deadpan photography. The images overall seemed a bit dark, and at times the faces lose all detail, like his image of a little boy in Mali who is nothing but a silhouette against sand.
Documentary photography’s approach has been perceived by some as a voyeuristic choice but it is also an elastic category. There is no denying that it provides a link to the conditions of society in a particular time and place, but whom is it promoting? To avoid voyeurism, some photographers, like Jeff Wall, create and shoot elaborate constructed environments, but Rollins has decided to give the viewers direct access and to capture situations from daily life. He knows this is not his world, and the whole experience has humbled him, but images are always open to diverse interpretations and uses. Rollins’ decision to add stories to each image, often written as if in the voice of the people from that country, is just one way to interpret them, but in the captions section in the back of the book, his own personal experiences frequently contradict both the images and the stories, so the book is but an open-ended project of observation. Images of destitute and poor people do not say much to highlight the causes of their poverty, but they do put the humanity of the photographer on display.
Rollins is confronted with his own past during his travels to Indonesia in 2009. The image of a female street vendor wearing a Black Flag T-shirt is paired up with a story about the ills of capitalism. However, he can’t give up his experiences in America or, for that matter, the society that has shaped him. After all, it is much easier to embrace all the career paths that Rollins has explored if one lives in a wealthy capitalist society. In the captions section of the book, he relates that the woman had no reaction to the fact that he was the singer of Black Flag, and walked away. Nevertheless, the direct association to his past makes this image a memorable one, in part because it not only reflects capitalism and globalism but shows how certain signs lose their meaning in other cultures whose values are different. This image is more about Rollins than the person being photographed, since there is a direct association to a product conceived by the photographer himself.
At times, some of the images seem like more surveillance than exalted experiences by the photographer. Rollins’ trip to Russia in 2005 displays a group of people, some talking amongst themselves, one reading what appears to be a newspaper, and one squatting while petting a dog. Also in this shot is an angry-looking woman waving a bag while looking directly at the camera. Obviously she did not want to be photographed, and the viewer has to quickly look away, or laugh at her need for privacy. Two other images that have this “monitoring of behavior” quality to them come from Rollins’ 2008 trip to Thailand. An overhead-angled image shows us a handicapped man who has lost his legs laying flat on his belly, begging for money. Another shot of the same man appears on the next page, but this time it is a frontal view and the man looks away from the camera. The viewer can’t help but wonder what he is looking at, but at the same time want to know how come Rollins did not take a photo from the angle the man sees as he drags himself on the pavement. However, these are not passive victims in these images. The woman in Russia reacted to the situation, but it was Rollins who decided to include her in his project.
For the most part, this book is comprised of too many factors—between the verbal and the visual, somehow the stories have lost their truth or reality. The reality is, a famous American went to see the world and wanted to share it through his viewfinder. Now that Occupants is out there, viewers and readers will find that reality is contradictory.