Max Pam • Photographer, Australia

Going East and Ramadan in Yemen

Landscape Stories: Do you do any particular research on the territory while working on your project? Do you gather specific information about what you are going to photograph?
Max Pam: No, I just develop a feel for the place I’m going to, what I would like to take away from the experience. The rest of the experience is just an exciting unfolding of random events, like in the movie Sanjuro by Akira Kurosawa when the Toshiro Mifune character arrives at a cross road in outback Japan and throws a stick in the air to determine which route he should take. When I went to Madagascar I knew I wanted to photograph female Madagascan bodies, I wanted that kind of revelatory experience and I did get that down a little bit, but that work only formed 10% of the photos I took in Mada. The book/journal will be published by intellect press next month (see jpg).

From 'Contingency in Madagascar' – Madagascar (2003)
From 'Contingency in Madagascar' – Madagascar (2003)
From 'Contingency in Madagascar' – Madagascar (2003)

Landscape Stories: How do your projects evolve since you start shooting? How important is your preparatory work…
Max Pam: The crucial preparatory work is what camera to take. My next trip I will take my trusty old 66 with black and white film, it will be the first time I have shot black and white since 1999.
Landscape Stories: Every place is full of meanings, memories and particular stories. In consideration of the complex relationship between East and West… What did it mean for you to photograph in Orient?
Max Pam: For the past 30 years I have consistently returned to fieldwork in Asia as a source of inspiration for my life. The visual production that resulted in these diverse journeys of self discovery in Asia are an autobiographical narrative. As a photographer I am a storyteller and it is the visual language of my story that has formed the basis of a trilogy of work on Asia in the form of 3 books: Going East, Indian Ocean Journals and Atlas Monographs.

From 'Contingency in Madagascar' – Madagascar (2003)
From 'Contingency in Madagascar' – Madagascar (2003)

Landscape Stories: Concerning your work ‘Going East’… How the project started? How much importance do you attach to the social and political aspects of what you exhibit?
Max Pam: This book is dedicated to my youth, the revelation of Asia in the 1970’s and the discovery of myself as a photographer. It is a work about street theatre and my romance with the population density of Asia. Asia almost always ensures a quorum of onlookers/audience. The main players will also be ready because they are as interested in me, a new actor from another culture, as I am in them. The mutual curiosity is confirmed through eye contact and almost immediately following this silent agreement we begin the play. I frame the stage with my camera, we all act out our roles, we know them well, it is our lives that we are playing . Audience participation is also a feature of the situation, comments are offered, the camera moves to them, a short season of street theatre is performed on a completely collaborative basis. A large part of my image making in the 1970’s was fuelled by the essence of theatre. The resulting images are seldom decisive moments, or images driven by the concept of human interest, they seem more like out-takes from moments in cinema, no doubt partly the result of the more than passive influence cinema has had on my evolution as a visual artist. This influence also helped me deal freely in visual understandings shared by the unusually film-wise Asian public on the streets. The social/political aspects of the work are an offering in the book, they describe my version of main streets in Asia with a particular humanist bias. I’m not reporting on Asia. In the classic sense the work is deeply personal. When viewed as an ensemble work I would expect people to draw their own conclusions about where the book takes them.

From 'Going East' – India (1971)
From 'Going East' – India (1971)

Landscape Stories: How did you choose the locations that you photographed in these series and what motivated you to include people in these images?
Max Pam: Because the work is autobiography so many of the images describe the little hotels along the way, the others who lived and worked in the hotels, then the conduits between the big tourist experience, the series of incidents on the way to view the Taj Mahal, the 500 kilometre walk from Manali to Ladakh to experience the Tibetan plateau. The 3 day bus ride to Katmandu, the 3 week walk in the Annapurna Himal.

From 'Going East' – India (1971)

Landscape Stories: ‘Ramadan in Yemen’ is your latest travelogue and your first photography book for french publisher Editions Bessard that documented your three-month trip to Yemen in 1993. Could you tell us something more about the creation of this book (design, handwritten notes, arabic script, sketches…)
Max Pam: If you appreciate Arab culture then Yemen is the place to visit. I came to Yemen with a reasonable appreciation of just how exciting it is to travel in and through Islamic cultures. By the age of 21 I had already spent time in Iran, Turkey, Iraq. My travels in Afghanistan in the early 1970’s were among the best experiences of my 20’s. When Pierre at Editions Bessard invited me to publish with him I knew the book had to be the Yemen Journal. I could not have had a better and more sensitive publisher for this work. Pierre worked unbelievably hard to get the correct nuance of the colour of the journal pages with its writing and coloured graphic layering. It is very difficult to do this when the first priority is to get the intensity of the black and white monochrome photos in perfect balance. Because Pierre is both an artist and a publisher he can achieve brilliant print output. Pierre’s production of the clam shell case the book coms in is understated object of beauty in itself. This is a classic example of how a photographer can work with a publisher and see their work amplified by the process.
I have always been made to feel welcome in Muslim nations, particularly so in the Middle East. I came to those places with no insider knowledge or linguistic skills other than in Indonesia. To understand those early experiences better, the ethics and etiquette of the street, the cool Islamic aesthetic invested so heavily in ecclesiastic art, calligraphy and architecture, the music and the cuisine I read widely on Islam and its origins.

From 'Ramadan in Yemen' – Yemen (1993)
From 'Ramadan in Yemen' – Yemen (1993)
From 'Ramadan in Yemen' – Yemen (1993)
From 'Ramadan in Yemen' – Yemen (1993)

Landscape Stories: You currently teach photomedia at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia. About your experience: to what extent is it possible to teach photography?
Max Pam: Teaching photomedia at university level is a very satisfying experience. It is a job that also feeds directly into my own visual production. What I photograph is what the university recognises as my research. I’m given time and for important book related projects, financial support to pursue my research.

From 'Supertourist'

Landscape Stories: What are you currently working on in your photography?
Max Pam: Right now I’m working on a book on Burma. It is a longitudinal study that was begun on my first trip there in 1973 and continued in 1975 and 1994. I need one more field trip to complete the work. I also have a new book coming out later this year, it’s big, about 350 pages and is being published by T&G publishing in Sydney, the same company who published Atlas Monographs.

Interview curated by Gianpaolo Arena