Inhabited Deserts: Dubai photography exhibition tells the story of the desert

A collaboration between renowned Italian photographer John R Pepper and UAE-based explorer Max Calderan has captured some of the most dramatic landscapes across the world

Siberian Tree. Courtesy John R. Pepper
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When John R Pepper embarked on his Inhabited Deserts collection, it was never going to be the usual desert landscapes. The Italian photographer began the project with a determination to create a new perception of some of the world's most arid terrains; no Photoshop, just a vintage camera and film, and his eyes. 

Inhabited Deserts, at the Empty Quarter gallery in DIFC, is an array of imagery taken across the world in some of its most dramatic landscapes. From Russia to Mauritania, Israel to the US, the exhibition shows the desert in its most raw and beautiful form.

Max Empty Quarter. Courtesy John R. Pepper
Courtesy John R Pepper

The desert has always fascinated Pepper. “Often a photographer enters deserts to capture the beauty of the landscape with a setting sun or a beautiful cloud formation and that is the final result. As beautiful as that might be, it was not what I was seeking. I wanted to go further,” he says.

“My goal has been to use the desert as a painter uses a white canvas; and while travelling through different deserts of the world from Russia to Egypt, Mauritania, Oman to the US, I sought to discover what imagery was revealed to my eye – sometimes it was figurative, sometimes abstract.”

Running wild in the desert 

The desert gave Pepper time to let his own imagination and creativity run wild. Speaking of his project in Mauritania, he says: “I would look across the plains and see what seemed like nothing: dead trees or a grouping of cactus plants. After walking through and around them, allowing my eye to wander freely, keeping my mind empty, without pre-conception, these inanimate objects would suddenly become a human being crying to the sky, a couple arguing, a dancer suspended in air. In the dunes of Oman the lights and shadows transformed a seemingly neutral valley into the body of a young woman trying to emerge from the sands.”

Man Empty Quarter. Courtesy John R. Pepper
Courtesy John R Pepper

The Wilfred Thesiger of our time

The exhibition has already been in Paris and Tehran, and will soon go to Russia, Europe and then the US. It is not only focused on this wonder of nature, however, but also features a man referred to as the Wilfred Thesiger of our time: Max Calderan, the Italian desert explorer, who has broken several world records during his expeditions across uncharted terrains. 

Dasht-e Lut. Courtesy John R. Pepper
Dasht-e Lut. Courtesy John R Pepper

Calderan, who lives in the UAE, spent five days with Pepper, in the UAE and Oman, where they covered 4,000 kilometres and used his many friends around the region to help him get even more deeply connected to the desert and its people. “I opened the doors for different locations directly with Bedouins and local people living in the desert far from Dubai, such as in Mauritania, or the Sinai desert in Egypt or in the Lut Desert in Iran,” Calderan says.“Being an extreme desert explorer, when John contacted me explaining this unique project in photographing deserts around the world with his old analogue camera, I understood that it was something like the right way to “talk’’ about the sands in a different way.

“There is a perfect symbiosis between my extreme free solo explorations and John Pepper’s pictures. He works with no digital or Photoshop and what he sees through the camera is often what I see and is not only sand but the hidden life and the hidden people that live in the desert, their souls that are filling the desert, creating an imaginary world. John has been able to show something that the eyes cannot catch but that a different eye, his old vintage camera, can.”

Story of the desert

Calderan has embarked on 13 solo expeditions by foot, including crossing the Tropic of Cancer in Oman; 437km in 90 hours non-stop, and his “crazy” fasting exploration during Ramadan 2014 in the Sinai desert in Egypt, 250km in summer, coast to coast following the rules of Ramadan, in 72 hours, opening new tracks that are now used as shortcuts by some local Bedouins.

Abstract. Courtesy John R. Pepper
Abstract. Courtesy John R Pepper

Sebastian Ebbinghaus of the Empty Quarter gallery says the exhibition “is art photography, telling another story of the desert” and leaving much to the imagination of the naked eye, not even curating the exhibition with titles of the photos.

“John Pepper shows how the desert should or could be seen, and what he learnt from Max. John’s pictures show the desert differently – it is rather abstract, still mentally taking you, the spectator, into this unknown world. 

"It's abstract, black and white, and no picture has a title, on purpose. The spectator sees and feels."

Inhabited Deserts is at Empty Quarter, DIFC, until February 15


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