Mason Adams Published

Photographer Documents Roanoke, Virginia’s Burgeoning DIY Punk Scene

A man is held up by audience members in a mosh pin at a concert.
Sam Moore during Terror’s set at the Flying Panther Skate Shop in Roanoke, Virginia.
Courtesy of Openhead Takes Photos

This story originally aired in the Dec. 10, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Roanoke photographer Chelse Warren is documenting Roanoke’s thriving hardcore scene under the name “Openhead Takes Photos.”

The Virginia city’s burgeoning DIY music scene is growing, based around Flying Panther, a venue that doubles as a skate shop. Its two-day festival called The Floor is Gone featured music, a local zine, an underground book distro, skateboarders and a local punk podcast. Warren was in the middle of it all, shooting photographs and dodging flying bodies in the mosh pit.

Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams reached out to learn more.

An adult woman with dark hair and tattoos poses for a photo and looks up toward the sky, while holding her camera. A flower bush is seen behind her.
Photographer Chelse Warren, a.k.a. Openhead Takes Photos.

Photo by LaJoy Visuals 

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Adams: Chelse Warren, thank you so much for coming on Inside Appalachia today.

Warren: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here. 

Adams: For people who’ve never been, can you set the scene and describe a Flying Panther show?

Warren: Flying Panther is a warehouse and skate shop in northwest Roanoke. The owners, who are fantastic, decided to turn the warehouse area into a mini-ramp and a venue. It’s all ages, they allow anyone to come. I’ve never felt so safe before at a venue. You go there, [and] everyone’s there for the right reasons. It’s a sense of camaraderie, and it’s always a fun time.

It’s mostly punk and hardcore music, but they’ve had country artists, they’ve had bluegrass artists, they have a goth night every month. So you can pretty much guarantee a full spectrum of music at some point.

During the month at Flying Panther, there are a ton of different people from all walks of life that come to shows. They’re there every show. You have your alternative and your punk kids, but you also have what I would describe as normal people that you wouldn’t expect to see at these shows. It’s nice to all inhabit the same space for music.

Adams: When I first went to that show, there’s people jumping around, the singers jumping around and you’re right there in the middle of it shooting photos. What’s that like?

Warren: I’ve seen a trashcan thrown, I’ve seen chairs, I’ve seen a couch pushed in the pit, rolling chairs, pillows thrown — you name it, I’ve seen it. That’s something that I always have to take into account, is I’m constantly aware of my surroundings. I’m looking at my peripherals.

That is hard, because I have to focus a manual lens and plan my routes. I’m very, very lucky to have the vast majority of those people always looking out for me, and I find comfort in that. I’ve had a lot of close calls. On day two of The Floor Is Gone. I got tackled. I saw it, and it was just so fast happening that I couldn’t move. I came like an inch away from banging my head on the floor. But my camera went up, it’s fine, I’m fine. And I just got up and laughed it off. Because that’s just part of hardcore and punk. It’s just something to expect.

Young people stand close together at a concert.
Dimension Six plays at Flying Panther.

Photo by Openhead Takes Photos

Adams: So what’s your strategy when you go into these shows, when you walk in and see the stage and crowd there? How do you approach that as a photographer? It seemed like you had a system.

Warren: Yes. I try my best to get there early, which doesn’t always work, because I’m usually late. I plan my route as best as I possibly can. Within reason, I try my best to do one side and then the other side. I’ve had to perfect taking a photo as I’m walking right across the stage. I’ve gotten some of my best photos just from doing that.

I mentioned the focusing thing — like, okay, I want to go there. Next I need to focus my lens to that point. So when I get there, it’s in focus, and I can get the photos. But because it is like punk and hardcore, you never know when someone’s going to jump or do something else bizarre that you want to document. I try really, really hard to always get jumps, because those are what the people in the band want. I try to listen to the music and try to map out, do I think they’re going to jump? I may be right once out of every five times that they might jump, but I still try my best to get it no matter what.

A man jumps in the air at a concert.
Gaol, playing at Flying Panther.

Photo by Openhead Takes Photos

Adams: How did you get into this culture?

Warren: My friend in probably sixth grade showed me a band on Napster, if that tells you my age. Which spiraled to another band, and then another band, and just kind of snowballed after that. I would say I was around like 15 when I started going to DIY shows that really helped broaden my spectrum and idea of heavy music. And it all just branched into like hardcore punk.

I suppose what really fed the fire and started it all in the early 2000s was my friends playing music. Watching them play music and doing what they love inspired me, who already loved taking photos, to start documenting shows. DIY is so, so important, and it’s important to document it so that it lasts longer than us, and people can look back and see a history on how things were.

Adams: What keeps you in this? You talked about getting tackled at a show, and that’s a deal breaker for a lot of people. What keeps you coming back? What keeps you so engaged? 

Warren: It’s just exciting. It’s exhilarating. It pushes me and my art to new levels every time, because no situation, even if it’s at the same venue, is the same. Even if I’ve shot the same band five times. It’s been different every single time, and I just love the music, and I love our scene here, and it’s important to me to make sure that it’s documented. 

A close up of the bottom of a man's sneaker as he performs on stage.
Roanoke hardcore band Collective Action.

Photo by Openhead Takes Photos

Adams: You’ve been doing this for awhile and you’ve shot all these bands. What have you learned from all this? 

Warren: It’s definitely pushed me past my limits of what I thought was possible. Several years ago, my goal was, I want to shoot bigger bands, bigger venues. I just took pictures of [bassist] Victor Wooten at the Jefferson Center this past weekend. That was amazing and incredible that I got the opportunity to do that, but it’s nothing like DIY music. I really think DIY seems like a critical part to communities. It offers a safe space for people who feel like they don’t fit in elsewhere, or feel like they have no friends like them, a space where they can feel loved, welcomed and accepted, and witness music that they love. It’s really important.