Max Pam: Ramadan in Yemen

Australian photographer's groundbreaking travelogue on display in Dubai

Max Pam
Max Pam

A journal of photographs and diary extracts by Australian photographer Max Pam offers an insight into a trip to Yemen during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Chanelle Tourish finds out more.

In 1993, Australian photographer Max Pam travelled around Yemen, capturing a fascinating insight to the secluded Arabian country.

Pam, who currently teaches photomedia at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia, has published a number of celebrated publications of his photographs and the results of his trip appear in his Dubai exhibition at East Wing gallery, ‘Ramadan in Yemen’, which features a series of black and white images and diary entries taken during the Holy Month. From images of men trading in the market square to locals in traditional dress, the exhibition depicts scenes from daily life in the capital, Sana’a, as well as Shibam, Taizz, and Al Mukallah, then through the desert, along the country’s coastline and up into its lesser-known mountain regions.

‘If you have an attraction to Arab cultures, then it doesn’t get much better than Yemen. It functions in a modernist world but still remains true to Arab and Bedouin traditions in a really profound way. It’s a place that has been economically sequestered from the world and it never really plugged into globalisation. A trip to Yemen is probably the most authentic for Arab culture in the region,’ explains Pam.

By combining his photographs with handwritten journal entries, annotations, notes and other visual marks, Pam presents an intimate account of his life. These additional layers help transport the viewer back to a very specific moment in time, while giving in-depth insight into his creative processes. ‘The photos only tell so much story because a lot of things you can’t photograph, but you can draw and write about and they are important to me. Illustration, text and photographs give you really good layering and complete a work that is a visual narrative of a month in Yemen.’

The 65-year-old award-winning artist is recognised around the world for his visual travel explorations. He grew up in post-war, suburban Melbourne, which Pam describes as ‘a culturally isolated, dull environment.’ He found his escape through the counter culture of surfing and imagery in National Geographic and Surfer magazines, which planted the wanderlust that would later fuel his future artistic vision.

‘Growing up in Melbourne in that period was quite isolating, it wasn’t a period of mass communication. That’s really why a lot of Australians travel. In my generation we had a lot of freedom to leave Australia and go out into the world. It was really exciting, given that Australia was quite a homogeneous culture.’

Leaving Australia at the age of 20, Pam worked as a photographer assisting an astrophysicist. Together they drove from Calcutta to London in the early 1970s.

‘I saw a movie called Blow Up about a hip fashion photographer. I was only a young guy and it was round about the time that I failed high school. So I said to myself, “I want to be that guy, the glamorous fashion photographer.” So it was an easy choice. Then I went to art school in London and it was there that I learnt what it means to be a photographer and how intensely personal it can be as an art form,’ explains Pam.

Pam’s in-depth personal travel experiences have shaped his artistic work. ‘Ramadan in Yemen’ reflects the mutual curiosity and exotic nature experienced by both photographer and subject.

‘The Middle East is so culturally diverse and it’s so heartbreakingly beautiful. It has a huge amount of romance and amazing old cultures that still have a presence today. It’s almost like looking at a history book, the way society operates. It’s endlessly fascinating,’ says Pam.

The exhibition is not just a series of images but rather a personal journal of his thoughts and musings of his experiences in Yemen.

‘For years I have been obsessed with Arabic calligraphy, it’s so beautiful. It’s a way of indulging my absolute pleasure at looking at the Arab writing. I don’t speak Arabic but I’m used to travelling in countries where we don’t often have a common language, but the international language kicks in. You can always make yourself understood through eye contact. I want people to go to the gallery and do what I do when I see great photos, stand in front of the image and go there. The photographer takes me to that place,’ explains Pam.

For photography enthisiasts who want to see the beauty of Yemen, Pam’s limited edition book is available at the East Wing’s bookshop. If you fall in love with the area through the photographs, take it home and keep a part of the journey forever.
Ramadan in Yemen. Until September 10. Open Sat-Thu, 10am-3pm and 5pm-8pm. East Wing, Limestone House, Dubai International Financial Centre (050 553 3879).

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