That Henry Rollins, the burly, tattooed ballistic behind Black Flag, has attempted to distill a decade worth of experiences wandering through the worst parts of the developing world into a photo-heavy coffee table book doesn’t undermine his rebel credibility as much as the new book’s contents, which show that, in extremis, the aging punk is less than extreme.
Occupants is collection of disconcertingly concrete images paired with impressionistic passages of writing in which Rollins adopts the voices of his photograph’s subjects or provides an emotional description of their circumstances. This works very well when Rollins does what he’s always done so well and embraces the hard-edged honesty of punk.
Next to an image of a camel outside Timbuktu, he writes: “No one discovered Africa. You might go, you might even return. But you didn’t discover shit.” If this sort of lyricism doesn’t get the Modernist design tomes sitting next to this book in stores moshing than nothing will.
Rollins also seems insightful about the way poverty can diminish the imagination. His subjects, who are really his characters, never dream of anything loftier than the next rung on the ladder: A butcher longs not to feel his work; a beggar wishes he could think about the future. In the book’s best passages, Rollins’ empathy allows him genuine and frightening insight. In weaker sections, Rollins -- who makes it clear in the introduction that he's comfortable playing the dilettante -- seems overwhelmed by sympathy and impotent rage at the status quo, a familiar position for a socially conscious rocker.
The most interesting aspect of the book is how family-friendly Rollins’ agitation for equality seems when compared the opinions held be his subject. The Black Flag shirt an Indonesian woman wears in one of the collection’s more memorable images was a signifier of ‘80s rebellion meant to upset the capitalist apple cart, but the Osama Bin Laden shirt a boy is seen wearing on a prior page is far more unsettling.
At the end of the day Rollins is questioning the machine, not raging against it: A little more traveled, a little less punk.