Sanna Charles first encountered the American thrash metal band Slayer when the British music magazine NME sent her to cover Midlands’ rock festival, Download. The experience was transformative.
“I’d been to Glastonbury Festival as a teenager and again with NME, but Download was more aggressive. Definitely no hippies sipping mushroom tea braiding each other’s hair. I’m into whatever but I think at that point in my life I was maybe a bit angry and generally pissed off about a number of things, and I found solace in a dusty field full of metalheads,” she said via email.
For more than a decade after that, Charles went to Slayer concerts all over the Europe and grew to love photographing the band’s devoted fans. Her book, God Listens to Slayer, which Ditto Press published in April, is as much a documentary portrait of a specific fan culture as an exploration of fandom itself. “I’ve always been into rock and punk and aggressive music in some form or another. I had just never witnessed it as aggressive in the flesh before. When I did, I loved it,” she said.
Charles’ quest took her to some of the biggest cities and craziest shows on the continent. But some of her best experiences were in smaller towns, where the heavy metal community felt more connected and where, she said, “people really talk to each other and there’s a genuine sense of being in it together.” Still, one of her favorite Slayer concerts was in Helsinki: “I was always amazed by the amount of people around the city who were into punk and metal, hanging out in the parks. I’ll never forget seeing a young guy in the suburban district of Espoo in the very small local supermarket getting his shopping wearing full black metal leathers, studs and patches. Since the ’90s it has always been very normal there. So it was great being in the Helsinki Ice Hall with thousands of Slayer fans who had traveled from all over Finland and the Baltics.”
Though Slayer’s fans may look intimidating to outsiders, Charles found the diehards she met “warm, funny, intelligent, interesting, and varied people” and they welcomed her into the fold. Her photographs, therefore, present a comprehensive, almost diarylike view of a fan’s world from pre-show parties to moshing to crowdsurfing. Readers of her book, however, will notice one glaring omission: photos of the band.
“Musicians get very used to posing. As horrible as a lot of them find the whole process —though many really do embrace it—it is a part of the job. So I made a conscious decision not to include them in the series. You hear it now and then from big bands on stage thanking the fans: ‘We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you!’ Well, that’s kind of the basis for the whole series—recognition for the people who love the music.”