Nikki Sixx: One Step up from the Abyss, Part 2

In part two of our interview with Mötley Crüe and Sixx:A.M. bassist Nikki Sixx, we delve further into his photographic approach and the passion and empathy behind his images. Sixx: A.M.’s song “Oh My God” reflects musically and lyrically the same theme Nikki portrays in the photography series presented. Click here to listen to the song. You can read the first part of our interview with Nikki here.

Q: As a recovering addict you have a special empathy and sympathy for the people you’ve photographed. Can you say something about that? Was it part of your motivation in covering this population?

A: I believe we are all just one step away from being there. Whether people are over extended financially, the economy is in the toilet and then maybe you get fired and you add addiction and divorce to that. Many of us are really not that far away from that. The people I talked to on the streets tell me they had a job and they got fired and had no savings and no one trusted them so they spend their first night in the park and they’re still here. As a recovering addict part of that relates to me. I think that could be me or some of my friends in recovery. Part of me is attracted to that.

Q: The picture here of a guy with his eyes closed, holding something in his right hand that looks like a hypodermic syringe … he looks out of it, a desperado, yet there’s a human dignity to this picture. It’s amazing that you can take a very straightforward image and go two very different ways at once.

A: He was alone in an alley. We started talking. I noticed the needle in his hand so I asked him if he just got high and said he had. He said he had been out there for eight years, but he and his girlfriend just inherited $19,000. She was sleeping under a bridge a couple miles from there and they were trying to figure out what to do with the money. He just closed his eyes and opened his mouth like he could see it. He is not in pain. He is high and not going through withdrawal. But honestly I don’t think he was telling the truth. He was wishing that it were true. Part of me wanted to call this photo “the prayer.”

Q: It has that quality to it. You could almost imagine the guy saying the Serenity Prayer.

A: Isn’t that a beautiful thought? There is a side of me and I’ve always believed that part of my passion as a photographer is to capture the moment and bring awareness. However, that it is not my job to tell people how to feel about it. But there is a struggle because I’m a writer. A lot of times on my Tumblr site, I tell people the story and paint a picture. That is a natural instinct for me but I don’t really want to tell anybody what to do with it. I wish there was more compassion on this planet and coming from a guy in a heavy metal band, that sounds almost as laughable as Miss Universe saying, “I want to save the world.”

Q: A lot folks have done this kind of photography before. What do you think it is that you have to bring to this subject?

A: I can’t really answer that, but it might be the wrong question. When my band started, a record company told me what we were doing has already been done in the ‘70s. Great bands like The New York Dolls and Aerosmith and Queen. And I loved those bands. They asked why we were going to do it again. I said it was because I loved it. And I can’t do something I don’t love. For me as a photographer, I have to shoot what I love and what moves me, and what moves me changes. When I finished shooting the beautiful people in my book “This Is Gonna Hurt”, I really felt I had exhausted myself. When I do anything, I take it to the point of exhaustion. Then I just show it to people. I don’t have an outcome for this. I don’t plan on doing a book or a gallery showing. I’m using the camera to show what is going on and bring some awareness. I would like to be able to document more than just addiction. I would love to do some strict photojournalistic photography and be assigned a project. That is a goal for me. A friend of mine laughed and asked why I took the pay cut. I would do it for free. It’s not about the money. It’s about the passion.

Q: You don’t have to justify these pictures. These pictures are different and convey a different time, place, and consciousness than other images of addicts shot decades ago. But how are people going to get the message if you don’t publish these photos?

A: Right. Well, I try not to think that far in advance. I’m in Canada because Mötley Crüe is on tour from the West Coast to the East Coast. And I want to get out and photograph people. At the end I will have hundreds and hundreds of photos and boil them down to my favorite 30. What I do at that point I don’t know. I’ve never had a gallery showing. When I first starting shooting, I wasn’t very good at documenting stuff. Something I have to learn as a photographer is how to create collections so that I can have a collection for this website or magazine or ten prints in a gallery. It is my weakness.

Q: You seem to have some kind of internal conflict. There have been cases where words and pictures go together to form a more perfect union. Some art photographers think words ruin the picture by directing someone’s attention. Is that your conflict?

A: If I go back to those report cards, what I excelled at was art and music. Like I mentioned earlier, I did a book that came out last year called “This Is Gonna Hurt” and it’s mostly studio photography. I shot a lot of people that society wouldn’t deem beautiful. It falls in line with Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin and I’m sure there was pain and push from their photography. But also as a kid who was bullied growing up in the ’70s and being told I was a fag and a freak and a loser, all these messages were coming at me. I just wanted to look different and make music. I didn’t even know what bullying was. I just knew it made me draw into myself more and express myself in more artistic ways. That’s what I did with my book — I took photos and talked about social issues and personal issues and let people tell their stories. I intertwined it with my stories. It’s pretty wide open in that book.

I do everything from street photography to lifestyle photography to studio photography. But what happened was that thousands of people showed up to book signings with tears in their eyes. Young kids were coming in and thanking me because the book gave them strength. I have another band called Sixx:A.M. We created an album that was a soundtrack that corresponded to what the photography and words conveyed. We had a number one hit called “Lies of the Beautiful People” based on that. For me personally, I think it is fantastic. There’s a photographer named Pep Bonet and he’s doing really great stuff with photography. He really makes you think. So whether it’s words or photography, it just connects with me.

Q: Some of your work contains shocking and disturbing images, but it does feel empathetic. In some sense it is an expression of giving back.

A: I’m drawn to things that I want people to see. I have a hard time just standing on the corner in downtown Manhattan shooting people crossing the street. There are so many amazing street photographers, but most of the ones I find attractive are the ones shooting two streets over from main streets — the invisible streets so to speak. There are the kings of street photography like Henri Cartier-Bresson. You also capture a time period. How was Robert Frank able to take these pictures in the ’50s and ’60s? We regard them as great, but we couldn’t go back today in 2013 and take the same pictures of the same street corners and at the same cafés. It wouldn’t have the same feeling.

Q: Technology enabled Robert Frank to do what he did — a Leica M3 and Tri-X film. The photos are of their time. The pictures of addicts in the ‘60s are completely different from your pictures. It was a different time with different people.

A: A lot of the people I shot for my book were amputees or burn victims and a lot of people with physical disorders. And I’m doing street photography of addicts. I don’t want to be stereotyped. My passion and dream is to get on a jet and go to Afghanistan, Syria, Bosnia, and refugee camps and go shoot pictures for somebody and document that life experience. I’ve done some fashion photography and that was fun, but I don’t feel like I have a style and that is an eternal struggle that makes me want to be better.

Q: Style is a very hard thing to define. In a sense You do have a style. It might not be as stylized as Richard Avedon; it’s your own style. And you have your passion so just go out and do it. Aside from wanting to do photojournalism on assignment for somebody is there any other genre or subject that you want to explore?

A: I just love capturing what’s really happening. I find that as I travel I feel grateful because I can see people’s faces and body types change. The environment changes and I’m able to capture all that. When I get to go to Romania and Italy and deep into Europe, people are different. It is exciting to capture all that. But there is the other tier where you almost have to be allowed in. I went to a shooting gallery in Canada called InSite. You go in and sign up for it. You bring your drugs in and the doctors actually shoot you up with clean needles. It is very controversial program because some say you are encouraging drug addicts to be addicts, but they are hoping to stop AIDS being spread and overdoses. I went in there and it became a government thing. I couldn’t take pictures. Even though the people in there said I could, I couldn’t legally do it. I can’t get into some of those different places and situations, and some of them are unsafe and you can’t go in alone. But wherever I can go you can be sure I’ll be there with my passion and my camera.

Thank you for your time, Nikki!

- Leica Internet Team

To connect with Nikki and see more of his work, visit his Facebook page, Twitter and Tumblr.