You've seen families make every headline in newspapers, pose for Christmas cards, drawn for the small screens and film themselves for the camera. However, there is one family that is unlike any family anywhere around the world: the Steffens.

Based in Los Angeles, the Steffens document their lives on Instagram as "The Family Acid" due to their bohemian lifestyle. Family patriarch Roger Steffens, who once worked in the psychological operations unit in Vietnam, colours his life with LSD, reggae music, exotic travels and friends with equally like-minded joie de vivre such as photojournalist Tim Page. Kate, the daughter of Roger, is the family archivist who curates her father's photographs, which date from the '60s onwards.

Although the Steffens and I are miles apart, our conversations feel like a family trip where we imagine ourselves sitting down by the bonfire, toasting marshmallows and catching up on life. We chat about the origins of their Instagram, the influence of Bob Marley and why the birthplace of reggae inspired their new book The Family Acid: Jamaica.

Mountain View

Kate, you started The Family Acid as a way to chronicle your dad's life from the 1960s and onwards. What made you launch it on Instagram?

KATE: My brother spent a year scanning around 40,000 of dad's slides. Once he was finished, we started looking at the scans and realized that all these images we'd grown up looking at were incredible pieces of history and fine art. In order to get these never before seen images out into the world, I didn't think a website would suffice, as it is difficult to promote, so we turned to social media. At the time I started our Instagram, I knew of one other girl who was doing something similar with her father's slides, @nahannireforestation and was definitely inspired by her feed. In the almost four years since I started this project, many more film photographers have turned to Instagram to promote their work, creating a worldwide community of film lovers.

Roger, you are a very talented photographer and your signature double exposure photographs are very unique. How did you become interested in photography and when did you realize that it would be your passion?

ROGER: Very early on in life, I found myself as an actor and lecturer living "on the road." And with that Kerouac book as an influence, alongside a keen sense of history, I began photographing my cross-country drives, and the incredible people I was meeting. Among the first were poets and actors, followed by painters and musicians, anti-war activists, DJs and VJs, Bob Marley, Ray Charles, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Peter Tosh, Fela Kuti, Paul Simon, King Sunny Ade and hundreds of other famous names. My photography wasn't so much a passion as a desire to keep everything straight. I wanted to remember people's faces and names as I traveled. Over the years, reluctantly then exuberantly, I became part of the digital wave and have shot over 300,000 frames since 2007 so perhaps "obsession" is actually the more accurate term now.

"Saigon at night, with flares dropped from parachutes illuminating the perimeter of the city to try to prevent nighttime infiltration by communist forces. Taken from the balcony of my barracks at the Walling Hotel, today a favored outpost of backpackers. May 1968."


You also once admitted that the double exposure technique was a complete accident! What is it like to capture photos with this technique without the aid of Photoshop or apps?

ROGER: It was very Cage-ian. One couldn't see the first image on which the second image would be superimposed. I had to rely on my visual memory and hope that the later shot would align perfectly with the idea I had in mind. It was always a surprise when days later the slides would come back from the drugstore and I discovered whether my exposures and framing actually worked. Kate tells me she is very surprised by how often I only made one attempt and they almost always worked. It's hard for me to be objective; however, about my own shots. Kate and Devon have rechanneled my life in profound ways in my 70s from decades deeply involved in reggae and voice-over work into the art world and its mysterious mechanics.

As a family, you've travelled to places like Morocco and surrounded yourself with luminaries who are considered to be "counterculture" icons like Tim Leary. Have you always perceived yourselves as being part of the counterculture?

ROGER: My kids came from my second marriage, following the first in which I lived in Marrakech with Cynthia Copple, a war correspondent I met on the Island of the Coconut Monk in the middle of the Mekong River south of Saigon. The kids went to Jamaica five times with Mary and me; to France and Holland and England; and were exposed to some of the music business' greatest figures; and never batted an eye.

"Devon, please come out of your room and meet Burning Spear."

"Naw, dad, I gotta do my homework."

I took Kate to meet Timothy Leary as he was dying. She had already read several of his books and asked intelligent questions. He was entranced by her. I've always loved offbeat people, off-grid and off-kilter; outsiders with oblique takes on everything. I met Richard Boyle in Nam where he worked on the same newspaper as Cynthia; Richard was the subject of what many consider Oliver Stone's best movie, Salvador, portrayed by James Woods. I lived for two years after the war in Berkeley with Tim Page, the Vietnam Time/Life photographer played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Tim taught me a great deal about "grab shot" photography, honed on Nam's bloody battlefields and coached by the great WWII/Korea Brit photographer, Larry Burrows. Tim and I tripped dozens of times, and it was on his birthday that I met Mary, my wife of 41 years, on an acid trip in a pygmy forest in Mendocino.

My double exposures are an attempt to express my acidic visions, the thing behind the thing. As my dear friend, Bob Watt, the Milwaukee poet and self-proclaimed "Insincere Zen Master," with whom I did my first acid trip in the summer of 1966 (pure Sandoz) said, "Reality is a copout for those strong enough to handle drugs." Our children were brought up in a very countercultural atmosphere, which I hope led to their own successes and skills in the arts today.

"Papa John Phillips, formerly of The Mamas & the Papas, performing at the Big Sur Folk Fest. October 1970."


Asides from photography, you are also a radio and TV host, had served as an advisor for VH1's Behind the Music and are known for your extensive archives on Bob Marley, whose music inspires you. Roger, what made you delve into music? How did you discover Bob Marley and what impact did he have on your life?

ROGER: A psychic once told me that I was a black man who came back as a white man to help black people. I wouldn't be surprised. Raised to be a good Catholic youth I preferred to listen to the black gospel choirs broadcast from Newark, New Jersey on Sunday mornings before going to mass. In the '40s, I loved the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, black harmony groups. I was 12 in 1954 when rock 'n' roll hit. Alan Freed came to New York and it was all over - three radio stations changed their formats within a month of his arrival, and black rock took over: Chuck, Bo, Fats and the doo-wop groups. I heard most of the forerunners live in Freed's giant holiday stage shows. I discovered African music in the late '50s: Nigerian drummer Olatunji (the first person I ever interviewed on the radio in 1961) and Miriam Makeba. The classic rock of the '60s was the soundtrack to my psychedelic discoveries and to 26 months in the army in Vietnam.

By the early '70s, the accountants and the lawyers had corporatized the music business and I was looking for something to reignite my love of music that meant something. Hearing Catch A Fire was the spark that exploded my life in a myriad of revelatory directions. Marley and his lyrical perfection changed my life forever. I became an internationally syndicated DJ heard on 130 stations worldwide; co-founded a magazine of reggae and world-beat reporting called The Beat; had a TV show for 23 years; was asked to found the Reggae Grammy Committee which I served as chairman of for the next 27 years; toured globally since 1984 with a multimedia show called The Life of Bob Marley; and have written seven books about him and the history of reggae music.

Alongside Marley, you've spent a lot of time in Jamaica, which happens to be the focus of your next book. What made you go to Jamaica and what was it like to live/travel there?

ROGER: It was always music-related for us traveling to Jamaica. I've only paid once, my first time, to go there, on a quest to find rare Jamaican records unavailable in the States. I've probably been about two dozen times over the past 40 years; thrice this year alone as I work on book, film and lecture gigs. It's an island of tremendous beauty and great violence. It's got protected enclaves and hideous poverty. It's got murderers and saints living side by side and it produces more world-class music stars per capita than any country on earth. People refer to each other as "star" on the streets. Jamaica was the island where the worst slaves were sent and many remained unbroken. That spirit manifests daily in the grooves of Jamaica's recordings - or in whatever medium one finds them currently. The photographs in our new Family Acid Jamaica book began on a seven mile long empty beach in Negril in June of 1976, at the beginning of the State of Emergency on the island. The shots continue through February and March of 2016 showing the non-tourist side of the Isle of Springs and a few familiar faces like Big Youth, Chinna Smith and Mutabaruka, along with Skill Cole, Marley's best friend; early Sunsplash Festivals and rural cricket pitches; bucolic misty mountains; and, of course, some bighead spliffs.

"Neon Sculptor Brian Coleman at my apartment in Berkeley in 1973. We had met a week earlier and when he went home that night he blew the glass for this piece of neon art, he said, as a portrait of me. A week later, a friend tugged too hard at the adjacent venetian blind and smashed the glass into pieces."


Kate, you once mentioned in an interview that The Family Acid is a reflection of what's happening now. What events were you referring to and how did that affect your work as an archivist?

KATE: I think that this project can help educate people that may not have been exposed to alternative ways of living and thinking, as well as showing our long history of protest and action to help remediate unjust situations. Dad's photographs cover a broad range of people, events and places and have definitely informed my outlook on the world. The surprise that liberal Americans feel about Trump being elected is not a surprise at all to me. We have a long history of deception and corruption in our government and his election is an accurate reflection of that. I look at dad's Vietnam-era writings, which are full of almost unbelievable events. I mean, he single-handedly raised tens of thousands of pounds of refugee supplies for homeless Vietnamese and then had to keep his Army superiors from stealing these supplies! I think it is vastly important to know your history, from the microcosm of your family to the macrocosm of your country and the world, and I hope this project helps illuminate the murky past.

Now that everyone and everywhere is all about the past, you've exhibited your photographs at the Benrubi Gallery in New York, the Rockhouse Hotel in Negril, Jamaica and the Standard Hotel in Los Angeles. Where else do you want to exhibit your work?

KATE: We are looking forward to bringing The Family Acid to as many eyes as possible! One of my dreams is to exhibit our Bay Area photographs in San Francisco, perhaps at SFMOMA. We are also working on a book of dad's Vietnam-era photographs, writings and ephemera, which would make an excellent companion exhibit, as well as a coffee-table magnum opus, covering all of dad's work from the 1960s until now.

"A double exposure taken atop Palo Colorado Canyon in Big Sur, June 1978."


2017 is going to be a big year for you and I cannot get any more excited to see The Family Acid: Jamaica! What else are you looking forward to?

ROGER: My next two books -that one, and then in July, 15-years-in-the-making So Much Things To Say: The Oral History Of Bob Marley from W. W. Norton; release of a documentary about my Reggae Archives, Livicated, which began filming in 1999; major essay and photo contributions to four other books about Jamaica and the 1960s; and my 75th earthday. I told Mary I would never retire. She told me I've been retired my whole life. I have tried my whole life to bring things into existence that hadn't existed before, and leave something for future generations to share. Before I take the big dirt bath, my ultimate goal is to create a museum (hopefully in Jamaica) to house the ark-hives, which fill seven rooms of our L.A. home. It's where they belong to help teach the Jamaican people about the reach of their culture to every corner of the globe.


You can visit the The Family Acid by clicking here.