Nikki Sixx: One Step up from the Abyss, Part 1

An acclaimed rock musician and recovering addict, Nikki Sixx reveals the desperation and transcendence of life on the streets with authenticity, empathy and passion.

Q: You are a pretty well known rock musician, isn’t that correct?

A: Yes, I am the bassist in Mötley Crüe and also Sixx:A.M. Mötley Crüe’s been touring the world for thirty-something years and we’ve sold over a hundred million records. It’s been one of the most amazing journeys considering I was a teenager in the ‘70s and had all these heroes and idols. I loved their music and it set a standard for what I wanted to do. I ended up in Los Angeles, which was the opposite of what everyone else was doing. I didn’t deviate from my mission. I feel the same way about my photography. I have an idea and it doesn’t matter to me how it resonates with people. A lot of people say things about my photography that they said about music. There is a little smirk that happens. But I go, “Well you were wrong once and you’ll probably be wrong again.”

Q: How did you go from being a rock bassist to being a photographer too? Did you find this a natural transition?

A: You hit a place where you go all the way back and reflect on your life. I’m 54 years old; I have more years behind me than there will be in front of me. You hit a place where you want to reflect; maybe it happens sometime in your 40s. I’m a father of four and a recovering heroin addict. I’ve been doing all this creative stuff, not for money, but for passion. Sometimes it does turn into money and I’m able to support my family and continue to be an artist. That is why I always support other people to become successful artists. I say, “That’s beautiful. If you’ve done it once you can do it again.” You can keep doing it. We all benefit from it. If you are a fan of a photographer or painter or musician, you can benefit if they can be successful.

My life and report cards reflect that I got A’s in art, A’s in music and did very well in English. I love writing. I flailed around and had a hard time with the other subjects. As a young kid I was always creating stuff and building stuff. Music gave me instant gratification. When I heard it, I felt something. When I started learning to play, I would have those moments where I was like, “Wow! I did that.” And once you do something, you can do it again. Over 20 years ago I was just getting a camera and carrying it around on the road. I had a 35 mm camera and I would just snap pictures all the time of what was happening on the road and backstage. Being a kid from Jerome, Idaho (population 4,000), shooting a sunset in Australia was amazing. Just basically shooting and documenting my life was instant gratification. I’d get the film back and start to think of the things I could do differently.  I was getting more into the idea of not just snapping a picture.

Q: You have a Leica Monochrom, right?

A: I have the Monochrom and the new M. I shot with an M9 for years.

Q: What lenses do you use on your Monochrom?

A: I use a 28 mm, a 50 mm, and the 35 mm, which is my main lens. Another one of my favorite lenses is the 75 mm, which is actually very unpopular among Leica shooters I know, but I love it. I had a 90 mm, but I traded it and got the 75, which I use all the time.

Q: The way you talk convinces me that you have this abiding passion for photography. This photo of two women standing in front of a brick wall is a very simple picture, but it’s so full of emotion. There is a great contrast in the two faces. Can you tell us about it?

A: There is an area in Vancouver called Hastings. It’s very interesting because the nickname of that intersection is “Wastings and Pain.” Right on the corner is a police department and right outside the police department stands all the drug dealers, selling heroin, crack and even guns. Down that street of Hastings is a community. They all know each other. I went down the back alley. I always introduce myself as a street photographer wanting to document what’s going on in the streets and to bring awareness. And I ask if I can take their picture and let them know that if they need any money I will help them out. It amazes me that they have nothing but really the whole idea of raising awareness is what connects with them. That tells me that they want out and also want people to see what they are going through. So maybe someone can come down there and do something.

I asked the distraught girl how she was doing and she told me she hadn’t had a fix in two days and was in a lot of pain. I asked the other girl how she was doing. She told me she was a prostitute. I asked if I could take their picture. And one girl told the other it was going to be okay and put her arm around her friend. If you zoom in on the girl with the pained expression, you can see the track marks on her arms. She has tons of scars from the needles. It’s such a simple picture, but I wanted to include it because it showed some from of nurturing.

Q: Please tell me about this picture of a woman holding on to her wheelchair.

A. That’s Maggie. I found her walking down the alleyway. She walked towards me and said, “Hi! What are you doing?” I told her I was just documenting what’s going on around her. She asked if I would take her picture and I told her I’d love to. There was a truck coming down the street so I told her to move to the side. So she moved over to the side next to the brick wall and I saw her reflection in the mud puddle. I literally took one shot and then the truck blew through the mud puddle and splattering mud all over both of us. We both laughed about it. That was that moment.

I met Lonnie, the girl shooting up in photos I shot, in Victoria. There are these two squatter buildings. They’ve thrown all the furniture out of the windows and it has landed in the alleyway between them. There’s this iron fence that blocks it off. It’s formed some version of shelter under the couches and tables and stuff. I saw something as I was driving past the buildings, so I pulled over. I had both cameras around my neck. Someone was holding a cardboard box in front of her face. I told them I wasn’t going to shoot a picture and I wasn’t the police. I said I would like to take their picture if they’d let me and that my name is Nikki. I am a recovering heroin addict. She put down the box and told me she liked it there because of the couches. I gave her some money and we talked for a bit. She decided to come over to where I was and grabbed her bags and climbed over the iron fence. She sat down and we started talking.

She asked if I minded if she got high. I told her no but asked if I could photograph it. Then she asked if it would bother me because she knew I was a recovering addict. Such compassion. After we were done, I told her I was going to leave. She asked if she could give me a hug. She gave me a hug and she held on a little too long. She just needed that and felt really grateful. So I started walking back to my car and she called out after me and told me I dropped something. I looked down and there were four $20 dollar bills on the ground. I asked her why she bothered to tell me that. She told me it was because the money was mine. This made me feel like I needed to be a better person. Here was a girl who has nothing, and she was concerned that I lost my money. I just gave her the money and thanked her. But I learned something.

Q: That’s a great story. The whole point of documenting any group of afflicted people is that they are human beings just as you are. Being an addict isn’t the totality of their identity. Many photographs of addicts in their environment have a voyeuristic perspective, but yours seem empathetic. Tell us about this close up shot.

A: I was walking down the street and this girl’s back was to me. She had this box set up with makeup pallets all around her. She had red dots on her cheeks and was trying to rub it in like rouge. I think she was trying to make herself look better. But if you look at the series of pictures, you’d see she is pulling at her hair and arching her back. She is weeping and then smiling. I just sat down in front of her and we started talking. I didn’t know what was going on with her. I asked if I could take her picture and she said yes. Then she grabbed something and was looking into it. That’s that picture. I assumed it was a make up mirror but when you zoom in there is a hole in whatever it is she’s holding. It’s almost like a looking glass. A friend of mine said it seems like she is looking into a better world. You can see her pain and where she is pulling her hair. I hope she was somehow seeing a better world.

Q: You seem to favor black-and-white images. What do you find compelling about black-and-white photography? And how do you feel about the Monochrom as a black-and-white camera?

A: When I do studio photography, I do a lot of color depending on what it is. Recently I got rid of my photography studio. I was spending so much time on the road and doing my radio show that I wasn’t finding myself going to the studio that often. So after eight years, I decided to terminate the lease. I put a lot of my stuff in storage. When I am out shooting and documenting, I feel that color distracts from the story. I don’t know why I feel that way. Almost everything I shoot is output in black-and-white.

Q: When you shoot with the Leica M, do you also output it in black-and-white?

A: Yeah, I love that. I had my M9 set to shoot both the DNG and low-res JPEG files and was viewing it all in black-and-white anyway. I think the Monochrom is a fantastic camera. It’s fast and the files are big. You can blow the photos up and see every detail. The contrast range and the depth you can achieve with the M lenses and that camera have exceeded themselves.

Q: By the way, can you tell us about your experience shooting with the Leica M?

A: I love the new M. I love using the electronic viewfinder. It really works well if something is a bit off in the distance. I enjoy that I can put the camera at a point of view that is correct and I don’t have to get down on my hands and knees. I’m down on knees and sitting on the street so much, but you can’t always do that. Sometimes by the time you get down on the level that you need to be, the shot is gone. That’s what I love that about that camera. There’s also a look to the images that is different when I run images shot with the M through Silver Efex Pro to add a bit of grain. It gives it more of a film-like look.

Q: You’re a reflective guy that takes things from here to there. You did it in music and now you are doing it in photography. Would you agree?

A: Yeah. I had this little 35 mm camera and this Richard Avedon book called “In the American West.” It was this book of portraits. You could read the people even though there was no story with it. I would spend hours looking at it and used it as kind of a template. I decided I wanted to capture more than just something that was happening. I wanted to pull something out of the subject. That’s when I started pushing myself and learning about black-and-white film and all the different ISO settings and lenses. I had nothing to shoot but documenting what I saw. But it started a process for me. I wanted to shoot people’s faces. I would make the road crew line up against a wall and I would shoot their faces in all available light. Then I would get the film back and see where I messed up or excelled. It became an obsession to me. There was always a camera in my hand. Even to this day. Even when I’m walking from the tour bus to the dressing room, I have my Leica in my hand, even though I know there is rarely a good shot there. But the other day I was in Dawson Creek, Canada and there is nothing out there. There was this one shot of one of our trucks full of gear backing up into the arena and there was nothing but vast vacant nothingness behind it. So I got this shot. I was so glad I had my camera.

Thank you for your time, Nikki!

– Leica Internet Team

Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Nikki next week. To connect with Nikki and see more of his work, visit his Facebook page, Twitter and Tumblr.

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61 comments

  • I just wanted to say Me and my husband spent years down on waste and pain area. My husband lived down there 25 years. People we run into from there still say hi and our proud we made it out. But I am so happy you could tell about the sense of community down there my husband was always full of pride nwhen he talked about thats ense of community. Your pictureas really capture it too. Keep it up

  • Classic tools, direct honest apprehension of subjects who are treated with respect. This is honest work… good job.

    This is a world that very few people know and even fewer can face without sensationalizing or sentimentalizing it.

    As a photojournalist, with what I’d guess passes for classical training, who mid-career moved from Manhattan back to California where I spent 22 years directing syringe-exchange, street-outreach projects. All I can say is: Thank you.

  • Nikki is a brilliant storyteller thru so many mediums. He’s never afraid to roll up his sleeves & get immersed in real life situations

  • Love your story!! We are about the same age I am 53 and have been a hairdresser for 35 years! I see myself in your story but not the heroin addict but a addict with other drugs at all times in my life! I love your photographs! They tell a story as I look at each and everyone of them!! Keep up the photography for the story you tell is worth the legacy you are leaving to the people in the world!!

  • Nikki, Thanks so much for what you have done. You are an AWSOME person. Love your music and your pics. When is your book due? Thanks again !!

  • The amazing thing about this whole story is meanwhile this person who is known worldwide and could be doing a number of things with his time, is using that time to give a face to human beings who are regarded as animals by most others and will never truly get heard, until now. Our eyes have been opened by the lense. Bravo Nikki, Bravo.

  • I wont applaud you for being a recovering addict as we all make our choices,, I will however applaud your work and resolve and say keep with it and keep it real,, go deep !!

  • The compassion you have (Nikki) in everything that you do, whether it’s photography, music or simply this interview for “One step up from the Abyss” you are an amazing man. I have so much respect for you and I’m sure you are an inspiration for many people.

  • Wow. Poingnant images. I am fervently happy he has chosen black and white. I would have never been able to truely focus on the emotions and reality of the photo’s had it been in color. Kudos to Nikki Sixx on such beautiful work.

  • Thanks to Leica for doing this story. Thank you Nikki for bringing awareness to our homeless brothers and sisters. The emotions you capture are unforgettable.

  • Good to get a in depth interview focused solely on Nikki’s photography. An amazing artist,inspired me to get into photography and start a degree in fine arts next year.

  • Nikki my brother was in the same hole! I proud of you and him…..!!!GO ahead!!! always….

  • Nikki….thanks…I am a recovering addict & musician.My wife & I are big fans. After my wife read your book.the heroin diaries she has a better understanding of what we have been through….clean 8+ years. She never done drugs. She is my angel….thanks brother peace.waiting on your next six a.m. drop…. 😉

  • I love Nikki and respect all that he has been through, does now and has come back from. But c’mon dude. Quit reliving your “I’m back from the Dead” routine. We get it. You have survived the worst, why not find joy in life and stop trying to live through the shadows of your “tortured life”. There has to be more to you than this.

  • It’s good to see someone famous, who’s also been to those dark places himself, raise awareness on a subject that most of us, myself for sure, come across every day but trying to overlook, ignore or pretend to not see because it feels uncomfortable. All of a sudden you look at the beautiful pictures and then start to realise the humanity and misfortune behind them and you feel guilty for always looking the other way, wondering if that could happen to you or what the stories behind them are-reminding you that we’re all the same, each of us with our own tale. This awreness might force some of us to try to listen to some that are always overheard and overlooked or discarded-and maybe even spur us to care and help.To see the Life behind a photo that matters, rather then getting overexposed to all the daily glam and fakeness. Great Work.

  • I’ve followed Motley Crue for years, and then Nikki’s other music projects. 58 all the way to Sixx: A.M. As a photographer I’m finding new respect for Nikki Sixx. Not only as a photographer, but as a human with a lot of compassion.

  • Nikki Sixx has touched the lives of millions for years through music , his books and now more touching than ever , his photography ! Much respect to Leica for recognizing this great talent !

  • Wow, so inspirational. My world is so sheltered.
    Love your work Nikki.

  • Nikki is an amazing artist & I am thrilled to see his photography getting this kind of recognition. His music has inspired me & his photography moves me!

  • Nikki’s photography is an amazing tribute to humanity. Every photo tells a story and has a heartbeat. I’m so glad Leica is taking notice of the incredible work this soul-full artist. Definitely with you now, Nikki.

  • I agree with Nikki about shooting B&W for the street shots. When I’m shooting my personal work, something about shooting in B&W just makes the images seems more real to me.

    My wife is the Director of an out patient re-hab center for drug and alcohol abuse and I’ve heard many stories of patients relapsing after getting sober. The fact the Nikki can be in these situations and stay sober is a huge testimony to his will and his program.

    Nikki’s work is very good and inspiring. He isn’t just a celebrity that decided to pick up a camera, he is a photographer/artist.

  • I always been a huge fan of Nikki’s, but this is so amazing and touching. I am crying as I read thru this.

  • … and insightful read; I enjoyed it very much. You are actually the one who inspired me to continue school in photography. My personal “thank-you so much” to you. <3

  • A touching and humbling portrait of the mans work and the real people he encounters. There are lessons here. Thank you

  • I am so impressed with your work. A True artist and a great story. Keep up the great work and push the limits. See how far the Leica will go out of the box.

  • I have been listening to your music when i was a kid, then never herd about you all again for years, I then ran into your books and read them, i was amazed and touched , and at the same time wish i could just chat a bit , i have my own addictions , not like the young days , drug free most part, but i still have other issues, i just had questions that i tried on face book and no answers. I guess the photography took the place of the cycle drug use , you found another passion, which i love to see the photos and yes , their story’s. There are so many lives that are going thru something , and we need to love them all,and be loved. we need grace and forgiveness and no judging!T
    Thank You for sharing and using your talents and gifts, but what if you don’t know what your own are ,or have an idea and don’t know how the hell to start, im a hair dresser so im artistic ,but have no idea where to go from here-lol I shouldn’t share about my self because im sure its not important or matters , but that’s who i am.
    Nikki you have something special, never forget that many don’t make it as you have… Keep pushing on, and keep on Rockin.

  • Nikki’s photography is very powerful & touching, he finds beauty in people & objects that other people turn their noses up @. Recently I had a man approach me @ work asking to take pictures of me, I asked him “Why? I’m nobody, i’m not even pretty or even beautiful 4 that matter, I’m fat!” And he told me “Don’t say that! You are beautiful, and there’s something in your eyes that tells a story I want to tell the world!”, it made me feel better about myself, Nikki, if you read this, I just want to say that you amaze me! The things you have accomplished is awesome! I’ve been a Cruehead since the beginning, and I look forward to seeing anything you create for a lifetime! Don’t EVER give up being you! <3 u!

  • i read this blog every day and i was pleasantly surprised to finally see a good set of images, after so many really uninspiring posts.

    mr. sixx (i will not comment on his music, since i do not follow that genre at all) at least has a vision and a story to tell, and is able to convey it through photographs, even more so because he is close to the subject.
    that is what it is all about.

    i wish there were more posts like this and fewer by so many self proclaimed ‘international street photographer’ kids, who are only proving that having a great camera does not make one a great photographer.

  • Nikki, I too am in my early 50’s – Life is short, is it not?! So glad you have found your new passion (“addiction” . . . as you have been quoted). Your work is wonderful – more importantly – the interaction and compassion you apply to your “subject” – the person, the being, the entity of blood, sweet and tears. Bless all that have been a victim of pain and the victim of an assult (as a child or an adult), damn those who have caused pain and have assaulted. I’m going to be that dumb dork to remind you not to be complacent and naïve when approaching an interaction with someone on the streets – some carry weapons. Get close, but not too close or don’t get confined in an area. I’m not too worried as you, from what I can tell are a smarty pants and are a survivor.

  • I really have to say that Nikkis photo of the two native women on Hastings street really saddened troubled me now for 2Days! I have to look at it his perspective..as a photo journalist of sorts..
    This is a real problem that cant be ignored.

  • Nikki’s work is a microscope into the hidden side of life on the street. Compelling, gritty and focused into the personal space of the subjects. Nice work!

  • The photos are amazing yet they break my heart. Many of these ‘subjects’ in these photos are the indigenous people of these lands who have been treated unfairly and poorly since their ancestors signed treaties with the settler society. U have managed to capture that sadness and their pain to survive.

  • Fantastic article. You are such an amazing artist, musician, and all-around great person. Thank you Nikki Sixx for being such an inspiration to myself as well as many others. God bless and much peace & love always!

  • nikki is an amazing photography, it is inspiring to see these kind of photos, the lifes they portray are inspiring. Just look at these people, they have been through so much and are still alive. Its mind blowing, but the part that I hate is in one block, there is about 500 or more people like this and within 2 blocks from there, it the richest part of town. The rich people do not care, they just stay away from it, act like it doesnt exist, when it does. The people down there are fully aware of what they think of them, but they do not care, they stick together and help each other out. this is why I love it down there so much, they all so excepting and do not care what you have down, If I had my choice, I’d live down there with them.

  • Nikki seems to have the ability to reach millions of people across all areas of society, firstly with music, writing and now photography. I dont know of anyone else who has reached into peoples souls and inspired people to be better like he does. This is a great interview and I wonder where this will take him in the future. I think he works too bloody hard though and needs to slow down and bask in the beauty that this world has too.

  • Nikki’s work has made me look at Photography in a whole different way. To document something so close to his heart and to provide a story through his shots of how his own life could have turned out if he hadn’t taken the positive path he has inspires me greatly. It cannot be easy to see these unfortunate souls on the streets struggling with their hellish addictions and yet he still captures a hint of beauty within their sorrow, that’s what really moves me when viewing his work.

  • A picture is worth a thousand words,& I’m a talker LOL, I could go on for hours about these pix but I’ll spare you the pain & just say I’m glad your passion for something you love has gave those people hope for a better tomorrow. Because you never know who will walk into your life & inspire you to not give up on yourself & your dreams.

  • I love the black & white and you always seem to capture the story within the person. I always try to see someone’s pain, joy, passion through their eyes and face. Your pics are stunning!

  • This is reality but most people want to ignore it instead of capture it, photos are the portal Nikki is the lense.

  • I LOVE this project. Photography is a hobby of mine and one of my passions. I also lost my husband one and a half years ago to his addictions. I think this project is great. Keep up the great work!

  • HELLO 2 MY OLD FRIENDS U DONT REMEBER ME BUT WE ROCKED IN MICH. WITH OZZY N A BUCH OF OTHER MAATES SO IS MICK DOING ANEY BETTER ? I MISS U ALL ! HAVENT SEEN U SINCE , i THINK IT WAS 98 0R 2000 ? SOMETIMES I CANT THINK FORGOT MORE THEN I REMEBER FU@$ IT TIMES GOING FAST 4 ME ALLSO NICKKI HAVE FUN WITH WHAT WE HAVE LEFT LYL N TYVM HOPE 2 C U SOON

  • Your photos are fantastic with telling a story. I myself am fascinated with the backstreets of Vancouver and have watched many documentaries about the subject of people on the streets and their stories. Keep up the awesome work, I hope to see more!

    🙂

  • Amazing art the pictures tell the story..i can see the pain in there eyes.. each one i can see there story without any words the world that surrounds them..my favorite one is the two women each one different battles and different pain and hardships.. its the depth and the souls that were captured..very deep loved it………..

  • I cannot express in words how I felt when I saw the pictures. I do know it was very raw. The real deal. Life on these streets! It was a very real. And very humbling. Thank you, Nikki, for trying to raise awareness to the real world! You captured just a few. There are thousands more just like these people. In every part of the world! Great job man!

  • I cannot express in words how I felt when I saw the pictures. I do know it was very raw. The real deal. Life on these streets! It was a very real. And very humbling. Thank you, Nikki, for trying to raise awareness to the real world! You captured just a few. There are thousands more just like these

  • You can’t get the same feeling and emotions when you shoot in colour. Black and white is king and an eternal classic. Right, Nikki?

  • I hope these people were compensated for their images. It’s something I always worry about when I see pictures like this.

  • I love that you remember the stories of the images you capture. It makes the images so much more powerful. You are capturing emotions from human beings that most people would like to ignore. Thank you for reminding us that theses people are real and that they have the same emotions as all of us.

  • Nikki, I just wanted to say something about the picture of the woman standing with the wheelchair. First, I love the reflection. That is a great shot. But there are two ways of looking at this one. At first glance it seems as if the woman is trapped between the wall and the water and has no way out. But then after looking at it for a little bit I saw it differently. Possibly as if she isn’t trapped at all. It’s the viewer that is trapped on the other side of the water and she is preventing anyone from getting into her world. Interesting. Thanks for sharing. Love ya. T J

  • Wow! Brings back so many memories, in a horrible way, it makes me crave it, but kinda makes me realize ” this is what it all comes down too” at the end of the day, so sad, GOD there’ has gotta be help out there!!!!!!! I feel their pain..for sure!

  • every time I see a picture you do, I learn a story and that inspires me in the future. I find it great how you learn there story and take a beautiful picture, it brings great passion.

  • Wow, Nikki always finds a way to amaze and inspire me. I am in love with his photography and even more so, him as a person. Is there a part 2 to this interview? I would love to read it.

  • Your work has literally moved me to tears. You captured the pain so beautifully. I’m stunned. I’m a child of addicts, I am/was one myself, and have lost too many friends to too many substances, and most unfortunately, watching a few of them do it again. Your pictures are so striking and the way you speak of your subjects without being exploitative is not something often seen. The light you are shinning on that side of our society is so important. I hope those images will make a person on the skids stop, and if nothing else, think before getting another fix. I think what you have captured will save lives.

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