Photographs by Max Pam
Published by Editions Bessard, 2011
Reviewed by Sarah Rhodes
Ramadan in Yemen is Max Pam’s latest travelogue, crafted into a limited edition photography book, aimed at the collector. Pam employs his trademark journal style, writing a diary, making sketches and sticking ephemera around his black and white photographs to document his three-month trip to Yemen in 1993. It is the first photography book for French publisher Pierre Bessard under the imprint ‘Editions Bessard’. The publishing house employed a multilingual typographer to make Arabic markings around the images to create a tactile finish, and give the feeling it is the journal Pam took on his travels to Yemen. The 44-page book sits in a cloth box with a grey ribbon bookmark. 250 of the 1000 limited edition copies are personally numbered, stamped, embossed and signed by Pam.
Pam documented Yemen in the lead up to the country’s first national election in April 27, 1993[i]. This was a potentially explosive time for the Yemeni people as North and South Yemen had unified into the new Republic of Yemen just three years earlier. The country has always experienced a lack of cohesiveness due to tribal politics and its harsh terrain, making it difficult for people to travel around. Pam makes his way out of the capital of Sanaa into the nearby striking mountains in the West, across the endless interior desert and into the remarkable canyon system, Wadi Hadramaut, in the East. He shows how poor the country is and the hardship they face as they struggle with democracy. Pam also makes particular effort to illustrate that the only advertising on the street is political propaganda.
His adventure began during the holy month of Ramadan in late February 1993. Walking the quiet streets in the heat of the day with little shelter, dizzy with hunger, Pam made pictures that are detached, capturing the unpredictability of city life. The film grain amplifies the grittiness of the place, dwellings and roads carved out of rock and dirt. Stolen images of people passing by are skewed to the left or right, creating an unsettling feeling. They give a sense of how he must have felt working during the religious festival of fasting. People move awkwardly past him, very aware of his camera. He manages to find refuge off the street, in places where men meet to drink tea, smoke hubbly bubbly or trade. As a male photographer, he was unable to photograph the lives of Yemeni women. He did try creative techniques, such as enlisting a friend to walk the streets with him so that he could get close enough to the women to take their photograph, but on the whole this book looks at life for men in Yemen.
Pam’s journal comes to life when he writes about and photographs the architecture. His love of ruins is clear as he plays with different approaches. Some pictures are taken in the majestic colonial style of early 20th century postcards, while other use a tourist snapshot approach. The most wonderful are large-scale heroic images of the architecture in the desert. Particularly striking is a stone tower house perched on a cliff overlooking a town below. Its small windows at eye level give the viewer a sense that the building is like a graceful woman, wearing a burqa, watching over her people. Pam romanticises Yemen through these landscape photographs – showing her in a stately glory and in ruin.
Enclosed spaces create intimacy and allow the viewer to develop a special relationship with the place. Images without people have an ethereal quality, a calmness. Light gently bleeds through windows into empty hotel rooms. Alleyways are quiet as the sun creeps around. Photographs of Yemen’s interior – the countryside and its city walls compliment the heroism of the architecture in the desert.
Bessard is known for the pride he takes in book printing through his experience publishing corporate custom made books in China. He lived in Beijing with his family and gained a great deal of experience dealing with printing factories. So when Bessard was not happy with the first shipment of Ramadan in Yemen, he sent it back to be reprinted. The love and care Bessard has put into the production of this book is appreciated.
The beautiful ink markings in Arabic script and English, by design company Tntypography, were inspired by Pam’s own drawings. Tntypography’s artistry beside handwritten notes, sketches and colourful Yemeni postage stamps decorate the pages and make Pam’s trademark journal style all the more special.
SARAH RHODES works as an art and social documentary photographer and has taken delightful journeys into the lives of others. She works as a photojournalist for The Visual Anthropologist, has produced an illustrated book The Artist’s Lunch and investigates themes of identity in her art practice. Sarah’s photographs and writing are published in print and online journals.