Friday, December 23, 2011

New Travel: Occupants by Henry Rollins

Occupants: Photographs and Writings, by Henry Rollins.

This book is a bit of a surprise. It will be of interest both to those who know something of Rollins’ life (punk rocker, performer, local radio host, L.A. Weekly columnist) and to those who have never heard of him. For the latter, the advantage is that this collection of Rollins's photographs and impressions can be judged on its own merits. It is a moving travel journal of visits to some of the poorest and most remote countries of the globe, chronicled with powerful images and a text that is immediate and passionate. The power of this book has its origin in the reason why Rollins travels, in his individual sense of the relationship between himself and the larger world, one that he understands is profoundly different and largely less privileged than the one he inhabits. He says,

“In my life, I have sought to bridge the gap I have felt between myself and the
world. I would hate to think that my understanding of life is derived in part
from what I have not seen…. I want to know more and see more. I want to have a
perception of the world that is not merely gained from reading books, keeping up
on world events, and watching documentaries. While one can learn much that way,
those are, to a great degree, other people’s stories. Life is short. I want my
own understanding, my own stories. So I travel as far and as wide as I can to
try and learn as much as possible along the way.”
Rollins’s travel experiences are grist for written vignettes that reflect a certain leftist view of politics that some may find preachy or a bit of a rant, a criticism of Western views of the third world and a mocking of easy assumptions. But it is not indifference. It is a response to what he has seen and how he has understood what he has seen, and if you have a problem with the text, then look at the photographs. What do they make you feel and think? Whatever of sorrow Rollins sees, he also seems to find a sense of endurance and hope in the lives of these people, a resilience that he finds it doubtful we in the industrialized Western world would have the strength to muster. Above all, this collection reminds us that the world of the poor and the marginalized is demographically a world of the young, of children. There are many beautiful photographs of children in this book, and each photograph, regardless of our individual politics, poses a question about what the future holds for them. Beneath the gentle surface of these photographs, behind the engaging smiles for the camera, these children seem to demand from us, without mercy, an answer.

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