“The story ends in death like it does for anyone else, but on the way it will be quite interesting.”
Introduction & Interview Theo Constantinou – Photographs by Heidi May
This is our second interview with Henry in the last couple of months. A lot of questions weren’t asked the first time, but more specifically, we were asked to talk to Henry about his tour, ‘The Long March.’ This Thursday, he will be stopping in our native Philadelphia at Union Transfer to talk about his “relentless globe-trotting to far-flung and often misunderstood corners of the globe is also the focus of his latest book, Occupants (Chicago Review Press), his first book of photos from his travels. Penetrating observations and incisive essays accompany the photos, as Henry juxtaposes the disturbing legacy of war and conflict with the hope, bravery, and kindness of humans around the world; the tragic effects of hunger and poverty with the strength and beauty of those living in dire circumstances.” This certainly isn’t a show you want to miss, and although it is sold out, I am sure there will be a few respectable people outside of the show selling tickets the night of … but if you can’t make it we hope that our interview with Henry can give you a brief insight into his long march.
The word solipsism, taken from your book Solipsist, is defined on the back of your book as the theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified. That is a very interesting word and notion to define one’s life by. There is an aphorism in ancient Greek ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’ or “Know Thyself,” which was a warning, written on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude. So, as you have embarked on your life’s journey, are finishing up the Long March Tour, and having just turned 50, do you feel as though you know yourself completely and, what more is there for you to find in yourself, let’s say, over the next 50 years?
As well as I know myself or think that I do, I see that I keep changing and that things remain interesting as they reveal themselves in different ways to me. A lot of introspection can be a fairly miserable thing. Nietzsche and his abyss as an example.
Henry, in the press release for your tour it says, “While economic uncertainty and political upheaval define the global landscape on a broad scale, expect HENRY to bring the human (and often humorous) side to light during The Long March, as he shares stories from the road less traveled – including recent visits to North Korea, Mongolia, Bhutan, Vietnam, India, Tibet, Sudan, Uganda, Haiti and Cuba.” I just recently finished Occupants, and although I found some of your essays and photographs humorous, the overall feeling I got was that of the world’s great tragedy: suffering and poverty being overlooked by those with the means to create positive change. How do you find a balance not only in the way you think of what you’ve seen, but also bringing humor to such “serious” subject matters?
I think a good part of what I see is an agenda driven, result oriented performance. This is what is being done by those who have the means to create positive change and they choose not to. If you keep people poor and dependent, they will do what they are told and, pass on the trauma of weakness and passivity and or easily stereotyped behavior onwards. There are many situations I find myself in that are not humorous, so I don’t attempt to make them so.
01-24-86 – Tampa, FL from Get In The Van, you said, “Makes me feel on the outside of everybody. Makes me wonder if I have any friends at all. Faith. Shit, that’s like standing in a food line that’s so long that you can’t even see the soup kitchen. You just hope the food will be there. If it’s not, you starve but at least your faith was strong. Faith. What a concept.” Do you still feel like you are starving but your faith is strong, since now you mainly travel alone and perform alone?
I have never had any faith. I think it’s a fool’s pursuit. That being said, it is perhaps an opiate for those who have nothing else to cling to, or nothing else to wait for. I always thought that was the straightest line to failure; I would rather be on my own and travel light. Bringing people along makes many situations dangerous.
I recently read an article in The Economist called, “Attacking Iran: Up in the Air,” which says that, “The probability of an attack on Iran’s nuclear programme has been increasing. But the chances of it ending the country’s nuclear ambitions are low.” It reminded me of a passage I read in your book, Occupants, from Sri Lanka 2009: “Put a plastic bag over your head. Tie a belt around your neck. Breathe. That’s the future. If you don’t kill them, they will certainly kill you. Killing you is all they think about, actually. You are on their minds constantly. They can’t sleep at night; hating your freedom prevents them from having a serene rest. The truth is that they are obsessed with killing you. No, really, they have nothing else going on but their thoughts of how to destroy you. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Makes you sleep better at night? Knowing that your way of life is so disturbing to these savages that it takes the largest military in the world to defend your right to eat too much at the food court in the mall? The freedom to go into Target and buy an imported product made in a factory with bad ventilation and low wages paid to overworked humans requires overwhelming force to keep the enemy from your door. They want what you got, even when they’re selling it to you. Must be great to be the object of jealousy so powerful that it drives people mad. The truth is that no one hates freedom more than you. You need the most terrifying armed forces in the world because it is you who hates the freedom of others to such a degree that it is well past obsession and is in fact a psychosis. You are sick. It’s why you stick to your own and make sure to run away from anything that might make you collide with the truth. It is why you are known as the America, the world’s most dangerous nation. Your stolen land, once beautiful, now covered with sore, populated by willfully ignorant cowards who would rather fight than think. A country that underpays and overbreeds so there will never be a shortage of criminals, soldiers, and desperation. The rest of the world sees it even if you can’t. Dig the hubris, taste the death. Touch yourself. Your toxicity turns you on and enslaves millions of others.”
So is that our solution? To put a plastic bag over our heads, tie a belt around our necks and breathe? Because, every time I read a news article I feel like you’re completely right: America keeps perpetuating the same imperialistic bullshit that leads “them” to want to kill me and the other ignorant cowardice Americans. Is there any solution to this hatred, or I am, along with everyone else, doomed to the same fate as my “fellow Americans?”
No one says you have to fall into that line: you have options. At least you see where things are going. I think people are afraid of admitting that all is not well. You are called a whiner or un-American. It’s like standing on the Titanic as it’s sinking, mentioning that the boat is disappearing under the water and being told to stop your bitching. A lot of people see the virtue of hanging in there and going down with the ship.
Henry, you are coming to Philadelphia for your Long March Tour. I am not from Philadelphia originally, but in recent years, I found out about blatant American terrorism on Americans, specifically in Philadelphia, from living here. I found this transcription of audio from Mumia Abu-Jamal that was played at the anniversary of The MOVE mass murders:
“May 13th 1985 is more than a day of infamy, when a city waged war on its own alleged citizens, but also when a/the city committed massacre, and did so with perfect impunity. When babies were shot and burned alive with their mothers and fathers, and the killers rewarded with honours and pensions while politicians talked and the media mediated mass murder. On that day, the city, armed and assisted by the U.S. government, dropped a bomb on a house and called it law. The fire department watched buildings ignite like matches in the desert and cut off water. The courts of the land turned a blind eye, daubed mud in their socket, and prosecuted Ramona Africa for having the nerve to survive an urban holocaust, jailing her for the crime of not burning to death. Eleven men, women and children died, and not one killer was even charged with a misdemeanor. But on that day, more than MOVE members died. The city died, too. Its politicians died, its media died, its courts died, and its churches and houses of worship died, for they ceased to function, and they served power and money. In a very real sense, the city massacred itself, for one’s faith in such institutions died. They became empty, hollow and dead, but for the shell. May 13th, 1985 is a day that shall live in infamy, but for far more reasons than the obvious. It was the death knell of a system committing suicide. It proved that a man called John Africa spoke powerful truths when he spoke about the nature of the system as corrupt, as flawed, as poisoned. Every day past that date has only proved it even more.
From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal!”
What are your thoughts about this incident, and specifically the commentary that America and its system seems to do whatever the fuck they want, never really thinking twice about the affliction and carnage they cause whether that be this incident in Philadelphia, or the countless other jackals and hit men they’ve sent all over the world to do their bidding to silence the people who speak out against their beloved system?
I think that America is not a representative Democracy as advertised. It perhaps has not been one since before the Civil War. I think that America’s main export is weapons and war, so to keep the presses rolling; America seeks, with hegemonic entitlement, to dominate the entire world and kill off those who disagree. The Thirteenth Amendment was but an easily hopped over speed bump. With minimum wage and multinational corporations, you can enslave the world. It’s just business as usual. I think it will also be the albatross that brings America down. I remember the MOVE house thing as a young person. Seems to mirror Hoover’s COINTELPRO Op on the Black Panthers. You just kill them, and since they’re black, it all goes away in a week. It’s how America rolls.
There was something that struck me in Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With a Thousand Faces. He left two questions unanswered. “The differentiation of sex, age, and occupation are not essential to our character, but mere costumes which we wear for a time on the stage of the world. The image of man within is not to be confounded with the garments. We think of ourselves as Americans, children of the twentieth century, Occidentals, civilized Christians. We are virtuous or sinful. Yet such designations do not tell what it is to be a man, they denote only the accidents of geography, birth-date, and income. What is the core of us? What is the basic character of our being?” So I ask you, what is the core of you, and the basic character of your being?
I am a nervous person of a generic upbringing. My core is an accumulation of facts and information derived from attempts, successes and failures. As an American, my skin color, gender and level of education to a certain extent determine my path. I am an Americanist. I eschew the common trappings of masculinity, notches on belts, vehicle size, etc. as it never really meant anything to me. I am merely a product of results and the damage done by experience and consequence.
To kind of come full circle from my first question, you said something really profound: Occupants, Mali 2010: “For what’s left of my life, I will go as far as the world will allow me. I will go without fear. I will keep moving until I die. I will do it alone. I will do it all the time. It does not occur that anything I do should make sense to anyone else. I am a visionary. I am always looking into the future, right to the end. Always. The end is in my present and my future is right now. I have no time for doubt. I only have time to go. I know how the story ends. I wrote it. That’s why I’m not coming over. That’s why I’m not coming in. That’s why I’m already gone.” If you already know how the story ends, what inside you or your mind, keeps you motivated to keep going alone, in constant motion and without fear until you ultimately reach that end?
The story ends in death like it does for anyone else, but on the way it will be quite interesting.