We caught up with world-famous musician and Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe to talk about the crossroads of photography, social media, and sobriety.
D.Randall “Randy” Blythe is known world-wide as the vocalist for Richmond’s own Lamb of God. His surprise arrest and imprisonment (and acquittal) in Prague, Czech Republic last summer was well-covered in the local and international media. If you follow Randy on Instagram, you’ll know that he still loves to skate and has been taking some great photos. We caught up with Randy at Lamplighter one afternoon at the end of summer to talk about the crossroads of photography, social media, and sobriety.
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This is a Roma (the vulgar and sometimes offensive term is “gypsy”) busker I shot on the streets of Hamburg during our last European tour. Buskers and older people are two of my favorite subjects to photograph. I like buskers because I respect them (the talented ones, not the annoying young hippies with guitars playing classic rock songs)–it takes guts to stand on a street corner and play to strangers in the hope of making a few spare coins; older people because the lines in their faces tell so many stories. This man was quite talented, and the lines in his face smiled. I often give buskers money if they are good, and I always give them money if I shoot their picture–they tend to turn on the charm a bit when the coins appear, as this man did.
On beginning photography
“About two-and-a-half years ago, I decided after a rough couple-year-long Twitter bender, that I had enough of this stuff, and I decided to unplug from social media. This Twitter thing, I started interacting with people, and I had 40-50,000 people following me. When you have that much humanity directed at one person–the hive mind–people become upset when you don’t talk to them or, if they say rude things to you, because I’m a public person, people seem to think that through the anonymity of the Internet they can say whatever they want.
I was becoming aggravated with these people, and I had this idea that I was going to unplug completely from the Internet and all mobile communication devices for exactly one year. I remember a time before–you can exist without this technology.
To that end, I was gonna write a book about it. I was telling my friend Jamie Jasta about it, and he was like, “OK, this is how we’re gonna do the movie,” we just immediately forgot about the book and started planning the movie.
So I talked to some friends of mine in the film-making business and I said, look, whats an affordable digital camera that I can get to film this stuff with? They recommended a Cannon EOS 60D…I bought that and started filming interviews with people. Then one day I was in my kitchen and I said “lemme use this thing for what its actually meant to be used for.” I was looking at my French press and I saw my reflection in it and it was all bent. I put the camera on automatic with the kit lens, and I took a picture. From that second on it was over. I was like, that is so cool looking, I immediately started shooting tons of pictures.
Needless to say, my plan to make a documentary about unplugging went by the wayside when I spent a little time in a gated community in the Czech Republic. I was unplugged, but when I got out, I discovered I needed the Internet to communicate with my lawyers overseas.
The pictures remained.”
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I was walking on Stadsholmen in Sweden, the island that contains most of Gamla Stan (old town Stockholm) and looking at the medieval architecture. Old architecture is fascinating, and prevalent throughout Europe, but after being there for a while, it begins to lose its mystique for me-=you can only walk through so many ancient town squares before they start looking the same. So I try to find something new to place it in perspective. In this case it was this little girl, walking into my frame and up this old alley clutching her doll. It startled me at first to see her all alone, and I began to walk toward her to see if she was lost. Then her mother rounded the corner, saw me, all tattooed up and in black clothes, with my camera headed her way, and snatched the little girl up, hurrying away. I’m sure the child’s mother thought I was some pervert or something, while in reality I was merely trying to ensure that the child was safe. A camera can make parents nervous–I’m glad I snapped this shot quickly before modern paranoia set in and ruined it.
“I interact with photographers a lot because of my job. Guys that I respect that I’ve shot with multiple times, give me tips. I have access to guys who have taught me so much. There’s a guy named Scott Uchida, he’s in California, and he’s a wicked wicked photographer. He’s taken me out, shown me how to do lighting during the day. Talking to him about technical stuff, camera stuff has been helpful: different types of flash cards, different types of lenses. There a guy named Neil Lim Sang, he’s in Vancouver right now. He’s an animator, but he’s a wicked photographer. This cat Justin Boruki who’s shot us a bunch before. He let me play with his L-series 85mm 1.2 lens and it’s butter man, I just fell in love.
Most of my beginning photographs were shot with the 60D. I upgraded to a full-frame camera, the Cannon 5D Mark 3. I also shoot with a Sony Nex 5R, it’s portable and small, I shoot skateboarding with it and stuff. Also, my publicist loaned me her uncle’s Roloflex (who was a photographer during World War II), I’ve shot some rolls of film on that.”
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When I returned to the Czech Republic earlier this year to stand trial, I made it a point to photograph as much of Prague as possible, for it’s a beautiful city. Towards the end of my trial, I returned to walk the surrounding grounds of Pankrác Remand Prison, the 123 year old crumbling prison where I was held for 34 of my 37 days of incarceration. It was quite strange being there, looking at it from the outside, wondering if I would return to its confines at the end of my trial. The decrepit clock tower in this photo was my only way of telling time for most of my incarceration in Pankrác. I was allowed out of my cell for one hour each day to walk in a little concrete cage, and on the way to and from my daily walk I could see this tower. I came to love it, for it gave me a brief sense of perspective. Without a watch, the artificial concept of “time” doesn’t exist. In prison, there is only the eternal now. I was grateful for the break this old clock gave me from that now.
Twitter vs. Instagram
“The reason I prefer Instagram over Twitter is that I can still use it as a promotional tool for what I’m doing (my band, my radio show, whatever), but it seems like I can place something out there, a strong image, and I can explain the thought process behind making it or what the image means to me, or just tell a goofy story. I’m trying to say something. I’m not saying that I’m Hemingway or Picasso or anything like that, but I am trying to put something out there that might evoke cognitive thought processes. On Twitter, there’s not a lot of that, there’s a lot “this is what I ate for lunch”. I’ve gotten some really nice constructive criticism and some valuable information from Instagram, from followers who happen to be professional photographers.”
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Another shot from Prague- it is quite common to see beggars in this position through out the touristy areas of Prague, snow or no snow (I have seen this in Athens, Greece as well). I have spare changed for a bite to eat in the past- I never enjoyed it, and wasn’t very good at it- I hate asking for anything from anyone. Sometimes I give change to homeless people, because I know what it is to be broke and hungry and just down on your luck. Sometimes I won’t, and never to the ones that are flying a sign and texting on their cell phones at the same time- I know this is the Information Age and all that, but COME ON- at least try to look needy, not like you’re updating your Facebook status or whatever. The beggars in Prague on their knees in the snow earned their change- I would rather work the midnight shift at 7-11 any day.
“When I’m in Richmond, I tend to shoot the river, and stuff that I enjoy doing here: skateboarding, or going fishing, or pictures of my cat. But out of town, everything surrounding you is a potential subject. On tour, your eyes are more open.
I’m constantly framing things now. I already saw the world through different eyes as a skateboarder. In an urban environment you look at everything completely differently; to someone else that might look like a crappy empty parking lot, but to me, I see possibilities…Now since I’m shooting photographs all the time, I’m constantly framing things out in my mind.”
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This is a photo I shot in the Sedlec Ossuary near the town of Kutná Hora, in the Czech Republic the day after I was pronounced innocent of manslaughter. Despite the fortuitous verdict, the fact of the matter is a young man lost his life after seeing my band play, and his death did (and does) weigh heavily on me. Going to the ossuary, where the remains of over 40,000 human beings, many of whom died suddenly within the span of one year due to the Black Plague, are arranged in all sorts of intricate patterns, reminded me that although I was a free man and walked the earth on a sunny day my mortality lurks just around the corner. Anyone can die at anytime. We should remember that, and treasure our lives today. I do not fear death, I respect it. I have to, if I am to respect life in all its forms. Life=Death=Life=Death etc. etc. ad infinitum.
“For me, drinking started out as fun. I talk to a lot of people who no longer drink, and a lot of them say from the beginning it was straight to-the-races craziness. For me, when we signed to a major label it got particularly bad because all of a sudden I didn’t have to work a regular job, and I didn’t know what to do. We all worked straight jobs for a long time, real jobs. When I got some money for the first time, I just went crazy, drinking.
In a while, I was in a really good place when I got sober. I was doing OK financially, my career was OK because I’d learned to control my drinking enough to not screw up on stage. But I was coming home, sobering up, and then going back on tour and getting wasted. I was on tour in Australia in 2010, and I was like, “is this the way it’s going to be forever?” I talked to some friends who were no longer drinking, who had drinking problems in the past, and I got sober. It’ll be three years in a little bit.
For me, as a creative person, drinking and opiate-based pain pills–I used those back in the day to some effect–they unlocked a certain part of my consciousness. But then that stopped working, and for years it was me drinking and eating pills, sitting in my shed listening to Black Sabbath and pretending to write lyrics. Justifying it.
The anger and hate will eat you alive if you sit in it. I definitely think that there’s a place for that punk rock anger. There’s a lot of screwed up stuff in the world, and people should speak against it. But, for me, when I was A) growing up, and B) drinking, it was all consuming, I couldn’t do really anything about it. I couldn’t perform any effective action towards change besides writing screamy records.
When I sobered up, photography became great. Right now I’m writing a memoir of my last year. That never would have happened had I been drunk. I never would have made it through my trial in one piece had I been drunk.
Sobriety has enabled me to do things.”
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I go to New York City once every month or two to record the radio show I host (The Crucible) on Sirius/XM satellite radio, wander the boroughs, and shoot street photography. I’m a relatively young photographer, and have almost no training except what the professionals in the music business kindly give me on tour. A street photography session in New York almost guarantees a good photo or two–all you have to do is point your lens in most any direction and a compelling shot is generally going to pop into your view finder sooner or later. I was on the subway to Harlem with my friend Acey Slade, our intent was good soul food and good street photos, both of which we found there. But I think my favorite photo of that night was this one, taken before we even got to Harlem. The little girl was directly beneath me on the subway and had the most incredibly gorgeous, dark and piercing eyes. She was staring directly at me, so I shot her photo. She didn’t seem self-conscious at all, so I took a few. As I got off the train, I saw her following me with her eyes–I felt like she was trying to look into my soul. A beautiful little human being on the night train.
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I process my photos to be black and white most of the time–I shoot RAW files exclusively, so I can make them color or black and white. B&W is easier and shows the strength of subject matter more (without all the pretty colors to distract the viewer, a picture’s strengths and weaknesses really stand out), plus it just fits my aesthetic better. But sometimes, especially with long exposures like this one, I like to do color–I’m just not as good at it. I took this photo here in Richmond down by the rope swing near Tredegar Iron Works. My wife Cindy and I went out one night to shoot on a particularly foggy night and wound up doing mostly long exposure stuff. Cindy was still enough while framing her own shot to make a nice addition to the picture, and the colors are subtle enough in this shot for me to not convert to B&W.
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Lamb of God have recorded parts of our two last records at an isolated beach house on the bay in Mathews, Virginia. I spent some of my time there writing lyrics, but mostly I was consumed with crabbing, raking clams, cooking food for my bandmates, and paddling around the bay in an inflatable yellow canoe we named “The Egyptian Lover.” Mathews is a beautiful place, and I have come to love it very much. The studio has shut down, but recently I went back to Mathews to write a book proposal and walk on the beach. I love the beach. Everywhere you look you see the cycle of life and death–it is in the salt air you smell. I feel the most alive near a body of water, but this decaying seagull reminded me that no matter how far or high I fly (literally and figuratively), one day I will be a rotting corpse. That doesn’t bother me–I just hope it’s near the beach in Virginia or North Carolina, the two states I call home.
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I woke up on tour in Dallas and got off my bus to go get something to eat and start my day. As soon as I stepped off, some fans behind a chain link fence outside the club started calling my name, asking if they could take a picture with me. I walked over to them and saw this man’s face–it was absolutely incredible. Sunburnt, lined, with really startlingly bright grey/blue eyes. I told the fans to hold on and ran back on the bus to grab my camera, trying to figure out how I was going to ask the man to let me take his portrait. As soon as he saw my camera he gave a great whooping yell, hopped up on the fence, yelled “Do you wanna take my picture?”, and began grinning like crazy. I shot several portraits of him and his son. They had a band together, loved my band, and just wanted to say hi. I talked to them for quite a while. They did their band for the right reasons (because they loved making music), and didn’t really care if they ever got known or made money at it. It was great to see them enjoying family time together, father and son out for a good evening. People like this are family to me. They support me in all that I do and provide me with a good living. I feel blessed. I think this is the most beautiful face I have ever shot–it is full of pure joy at being alive in that moment.