People rarely have just a passing interest in Slayer. To fans, Slayer are better than whatever you listen to – always have been, always will be, because fuck you. After all, extreme music creates extreme reactions.
The original fan base has remained loyal since the 1980s, the kids scratching the band's logo into their school desks now the fat topless men screaming, "SLAAAAYER" outside every gig. Of course, they've picked up plenty of new fans since then, thanks in part to the fact they're constantly releasing albums and still spend a huge amount of time touring for a band that's been together for going on 35 years.
Sanna Charles has been photographing Slayer fans for over a decade, starting after a festival slot in 2003 and continuing until now. She's compiled all her work into a book, God Listens to Slayer, which is being released by Ditto Press on the 17th of April, so I thought now would be a good time to meet up for some pie and mash and a chat.
VICE: Hi Sanna. Let's start from the beginning: why did you start taking photos?
Sanna Charles: I started doing photography because of a band called The Parkinsons, a London punk band. I went to their gig at The Boston Arms [in Tufnell Park] and their singer was rolling around on the floor, naked, going crazy. There was a girl taking pictures and she wasn't getting stuck in at all, and I thought I could do better. So I started photographing that band, then Melody Maker liked some of my photos and it started from there, really.
How did you get from there to the Slayer project?
I used to work for NME, and they sent me to Download Festival in 2002 to photograph Slayer. The show had been put back by three hours, it was baking hot and they were now playing in a smaller tent, instead of an outdoor stage. The tent was rammed and people were in there waiting for pretty much three hours solid. That build-up, and then watching them play, was amazing. The other photographers left the pit after three songs but I just stayed because I was so mesmerised by the crowd.
The pure release of anger and aggression by the fans felt so free. Everyone was packed into the tent, kind of like kittens in a pet shop trying to get out. Afterwards I got about three portraits of people leaving, just as an afterthought, but when I got them back I really fell in love with one of the photos.
And that's when you decided to follow Slayer around the world.
Yeah. I thought to myself, 'I've got a credit card, maybe I should use it? Maybe I could follow them on tour?' So I convinced my friend, who had a car, and we went around the UK together, staying at friends' houses. Then we thought, 'Fuck it, why don't we go to Norway and Finland?' So we did, and I put it on the credit card. I wouldn't do that again, but sometimes in life you have to take these financial risks.
It was great; I got to see them nine times and met some really funny people along the way. I continued shooting, mainly at European festivals, to get more fan photos. I think metal fans from mainland Europe are a bit different than America and elsewhere, but I don't know why.
What were the European fans like?
Well, there was an Estonian fan who was in a wheelchair and was right down the front of the gig who'd lost his job for Slayer. They wouldn't let him have the time off for the gig, so he told them to fuck off. I asked him if it was going to be hard to get a new job, and he said, "Yes, it's going to be pretty much impossible." But he was so happy to see Slayer.
Did you see many of the same faces at all these different shows?
We saw the same touts! We'd see them up and down the country. We saw one tout in Norway and we were like, "How the fuck did you afford to fly to Norway to sell tickets?"
Have you seen much change in the fan base since the early 2000s?
Yeah, I think so. I've seen a change in the crowd at metal festivals. It's more accessible now. Not Slayer, per se, but heavier music has seemed to become more accessible. If anything, it's just grown.
Did you ever get a chance to photograph the band?
No, but I didn't really want to; it wasn't about that. The first gig of the tour we went on the tour manager told us that if he saw us backstage taking photos again then we'd be off the tour and he'd take our passes. So we had to tread really carefully.
Have the band seen the photos?
I tried to send them over, but who knows. There was an extra on one of their live DVDs from around the early-2000s about their fans, but it's just footage of them doing the one thing that I didn't want them to do: the, "SLAAAAAYER" scream. I wanted them just as they are. They'd do the scream, then I'd try to get a cheeky photo afterwards. I wanted to capture them more normal, not as insane, hyped-up kids.
What do you think makes Slayer fans so unique, as opposed to, say, Metallica fans?
The music is more extreme than Metallica. Slayer have stuck with a formula and that's what the fans like. In Helsinki I met the head of the Russian Slayer fan club. He called himself Kerry and had the same tattoos as [Slayer guitarist] Kerry King on his head. He was really nice, and his love for Slayer is just amazing. He doesn't budge in any way. Motörhead are a good example of it, too. People like the formula and the fact that they've stuck to their guns. Younger audiences are into it too because nothing else sounds like it. Also, the stuff they sing about isn't affected by the fans getting older or their lifestyles changing. I think the fans are timeless because the music is timeless.
Pre-order God Listens to Slayer on the Ditto Press website
See more photos from the book below: