Mohamed Amin: The Kenyan who moved the world | Kenya

When he picked up his camera on October 19, 1984, Mohamed “Mo” Amin couldn’t possibly have known that the footage he would shoot over the next two days would change not only his own life, but millions more.

Working for Visnews media agency, the Kenyan photographer and cameraman had teamed up with BBC correspondents Michael Buerk and Mike Wooldridge to cover a famine that was ravaging Ethiopia.

Using Mo’s contacts established over years of filming in the country, the team was able to secure access to a makeshift refugee camp in the northern town of Korem, a previously restricted area.

There, they witnessed the consequences of the crisis. Caused by years of drought and exacerbated by secessionist conflict, the famine threatened seven million people with starvation. 

The resulting report was apocalyptic: children standing on legs as thin as matchsticks, wailing from the pain of hunger, emaciated mothers unable to breastfeed their newborn babies and seemingly endless rows of people waiting for food, clothing and shelter.

The story resonated around the world, shocking and shaming the international community into action.

A force for change





Scenes from the 1984 report inspired international relief efforts, raising millions of dollars [Screengrab/Al Jazeera] 

Almost a third of the UK‘s adult population saw the first BBC broadcasts, including musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure who were inspired to act. 

They organised Live Aid, a 16-hour charity concert that took place on July 13, 1985, to raise funds for the ongoing crisis.






WATCH Mo & Me Episode One: Roots

The star-studded concert, featuring performances by the likes of Bob Dylan and David Bowie, was held in dual venues in London and Philadelphia and was watched by around 1.9 billion people. It is thought the event raised around $150m for famine relief.

Without Mo, none of this would have happened.

“He succeeded above all else in showing you his own disgust and shame and anger and making it yours also,” Geldof later said.

Schoolyard shutterbug





Mo, backrow centre, grew up with a large family in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam [Screengrab/Al Jazeera] 

Born on August 29, 1943, in Kenya‘s capital, Nairobi, Mo was the second of seven children raised by Muslim parents who had emigrated from the Punjab in 1927.

His father, Sardar Mohamed, found work on the railway building Kenya’s “lunatic line” from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, while his mother, Azmat Bibi Mohamed, set about making a home for the family in their new country.






WATCH Mo & Me Episode Two: Town and Around

In the early 1950s, Sardar was posted to Dar es Salaam in then-British-ruled Tanganyika, now Tanzania, where the family of nine squeezed into a four bedroom bungalow owned by the railway.

Mo bought his first camera, a Box Brownie, aged 11, after years of hoarding pennies to save for the 40-shilling price tag.

He began learning how to shoot images while still at school, joining the photographic club and developing his photos in a stairwell dark room.

During those years, he honed not only his photographic skills, but also his business savvy, selling snaps of school activities and splitting the profits 50/50 with his subjects. 





As a schoolboy, Mo snapped school events from football games to fashion shows [Mohamed Amin/Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Good health, good planning and good luck 

At 19, Mo decided to pursue photography full time, setting up a shop in downtown Dar es Salaam under the name “Camerapix”.

Today, Camerapix is an international company, spanning 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But it didn’t happen overnight.

According to his son, Salim Amin, Mo’s success came down to “good health, good planning and good luck”, along with a hefty dose of perseverance and determination.

“The first response to anything that he asked for was ‘no’, so that was a big lesson for him and honed his ability to get into places and to be persistent,” says Salim.

“He never took ‘no’ for an answer,” he tells Al Jazeera.

From behind his camera, Mo helped to shape the way the world saw Africa, capturing some of the continent’s most defining moments as it burst through the second half of the 20th century.





Mo’s photos of military training in Zanzibar made his name, but almost cost him his life [Mohamed Amin/Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

His first world exclusive came from Zanzibar in 1965. He had been making various trips to the island to document the violent upheaval that followed a revolution the year before.

According to Salim, whenever something newsworthy happened on Zanzibar, the authorities would close the airport. But Mo found a way around, using dhows to smuggle himself in and get his stills out. 






WATCH Mo & Me Episode Three: Shafting the Opposition

Acting on tips from local contacts, he discovered a military training camp with Soviet and East German advisers. Coming just three years after the Cuban missile crisis, with Cold War tensions running high, this was big news. 

The images were published around the world, including to the Soviet Union, where officials saw Mo’s name on the credits and passed it on to authorities in Zanzibar.

He was picked up at the island’s airport and thrown into the notorious Kilimamigu prison, where he was beaten, tortured and interrogated for 28 days before being released.

Mo had lost 28 pounds and was deported back to Kenya but the ordeal didn’t break him. He was only 23 and this was just the beginning.





With his links to local contacts and international distributors, Mo positioned himself as the go-to man for East African news [Screengrab/Al Jazeera] 

Crushing the opposition

While his commitment to his work pleased those who commissioned him, it was a source of much aggravation for his competitors. 

He would rise at 2am every day and kept his scoops and contacts close to his chest. A competitor once described Mo as patrolling his East African patch “like a jealous predator, crushing all opposition”.

According to former colleagues, he loved beating other journalists to a story, once even borrowing a top hat and tails from a local theatre company to gatecrash the 1977 coronation of the self-styled Emperor of the Central African Republic Jean-Bedel Bokassa, infuriating French media who had secured exclusive rights.

He would frequently refuse to transport his competitors’ stills and footage. Former colleagues have said that on one days-long commission in Ethiopia, Mo told the other journalists that the only available satellite had broken, even though he had just used it to transmit his own footage.





Mo’s competitive streak saw him gatecrash the coronation of Jean-Bedel Bokassa [Mohamed Amin/Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

His ability to shoot film and stills simultaneously set him apart, but to compete with international media Mo needed to buy the latest equipment. To save enough money, he worked long hours and was often on several commissions at once.

This earned him the nickname “Six camera Mo”.

Mo knew the value of contacts and people close to him said he had a reputation for being able to switch from charm to intimidation and back in the blink of an eye if the situation required it, which, in his line of work, it often did.

Whether bantering with border guards or persuading presidents to pose for a picture, he was constantly expanding his network and laying the ground for future stories.

He tended to skip the hours spent trading war stories in hotel bars with the rest of the international press corps, using this time instead to hunt for scoops.





During the rule of Idi Amin, Mo was the only photographer officially allowed in and out of Uganda [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

His Muslim faith played a role in securing permission to photograph and film the Hajj for the first time, and even his name opened unexpected doors when Uganda fell to Idi Amin in 1971. 

When Mo called Amin’s office to attempt to arrange an interview, he was put straight through to the then-general as the operator assumed he was family.

He established a relationship with Amin and was eventually the only photographer allowed in and out of Uganda. But exclusive access didn’t stop him documenting the horrors of Amin’s regime.






WATCH Mo & Me Episode Four: Famine

His photos were published anonymously, allowing Mo to quietly continue covering Uganda as the bylined reporters he worked with were all banned from the country.

At the same time, Camerapix was expanding. The company moved to Nairobi after Mo’s deportation from Zanzibar and branched out into publishing and documentary production. 

In the office, Mo was the first one to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. He expected the same commitment from his employees.

Former colleagues say he was superfluously tight-fisted: his invoices were meticulous and he billed for everything, including the stamp he bought to send the letter.

He was less stressed in a war zone than he was in the office.

Salim Amin, son of Mohamed Amin

He demanded that all important communication with him be via memo, an eccentricity he also enforced at home, as his long working hours often kept him from attending to household business.

“He would write memos for us to see when we woke up on what needed to be done and leave them on our place settings at the dining table,” says Salim.

“And he would expect a response in writing.”

A harsh taskmaster, Mo found it difficult to keep staff, as journalist after journalist would eventually decide they had had enough and leave. But people close to him say he was completely different in the field, where he would often crack jokes and share tales of his life as a reporter.

“He was less stressed in a warzone than he was in the office,” says Salim.

“I don’t think he liked dealing with paperwork and meetings, he wanted to be out there doing what he loved,” he tells Al Jazeera.





Mo took the final photos of Haile Selassie before the Ethiopian emperor was killed [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

A family man?

Doing the job he loved often meant Mo spent months away from his home and family.

“I would rarely see him,” says Salim, recalling his childhood. “When he was most busy he would probably be away maybe eight or nine months of the year.

“Even when he was in Nairobi, because of his hours, the only meal we had together was an early dinner … that was probably about the only time I had with him when I was younger.”

Mo met Salim’s mother in the 1960s, when she was a young model and amateur clothes designer in Dar es Salaam.

Dolly Khaki was an elegant and glamorous figure in the city, who once rejected an offer to model in Paris. As an Ismaili, and five years his senior, she was considered an unsuitable choice for Mo by his Sunni parents.





Dolly Khaki was a model when she met the young photographer in Dar es Salaam [Screengrab/Al Jazeera] 

The pair exchanged vows in his dark room and were married in secret. A few hours after the ceremony, Mo was off on a job. 

Mo’s family often played second fiddle to his work, but he sometimes found a way to combine the two, organising business trips disguised as holidays and making an annual ritual of covering the East Africa Safari Rally with his son, who was born in 1970.






WATCH Mo & Me Episode Five: Amputee

When Salim started working at Camerapix, which he now runs, he saw more of his father. But, at times, he might have wished he hadn’t.

“He went out of his way to treat me worse than anybody else in the office just to prove that I wasn’t going to get special treatment because I was his son,” he says.

“He was rough with everybody in the office but he was pretty rough with me in particular.”

Despite his toughness at work, it was there that Mo met Debbie Gaiger, who ran Camerapix’s London office.

The pair’s relationship began in the mid-1980s and became an open secret.





Mo’s family often came second to his work, with him frequently travelling for months at a time on stories [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

From scooping the world to saving it

Filming the 1984 famine changed not only Mo’s status as a journalist, but also the way he approached his work. Previously driven by the urge to “scoop the world”, this was the first time he felt truly connected to a story.

“People were dying in front of the camera. It changed me,” he said afterwards, “Before that, I couldn’t have cared less. Anything I filmed was just a story”.

Covering the crisis made Mo a celebrity in journalism circles and while he basked in the limelight, he also used his newfound fame to make sure the story was not forgotten.

He returned to Ethiopia multiple times, eventually making a documentary, African Calvary, at his own expense.





Mo enlisted the help of influential political and spiritual leaders to raise awareness of the famine [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Mo’s life would change again in 1991 when he lost his left arm in an explosion at an Addis Ababa ammunition dump.

He and four colleagues had travelled to the site after a huge blast, not realising there were more still to come.

John Mathai, a sound recordist was killed and the others narrowly escaped.

But this brush with death didn’t dampen Mo’s passion for his work. He was doing paperwork in bed within hours of the operation and scolding his colleague, Colin Blane, for saving his life but leaving his camera behind, eventually coaxing him to return to look for it.

Three months later, he was back in the field.





His prosthetic arm allowed Mo to operate his lens and charge his camera from the battery [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

He had a battery-operated prosthetic arm made, with a rotating hand that allowed him to adjust his lenses while shooting. 

After the loss of his arm, friends say he became depressed and more solitary. Around this time, his relationship with Debbie also ended and it seemed his heyday as a cameraman might have been behind him.

While always committed to capturing the continent’s harsh realities during his four decades in the field, Mo was also concerned by the negative image of Africa that he felt international news coverage had created.

With this in mind, in 1994, he launched Africa Journal, a weekly human interest show that told stories of growth and development from around the continent. It was delivered to more than 20 different broadcasters in Africa and beyond.

The end of the adventure





‘No news cameraman in recent history has had a greater impact than Mohamed Amin’ [Screengrab/Al Jazeera] 

Though in the field less often, Mo continued his work for Camerapix, frequently travelling to meet clients and commissioners.

On November 23, 1996, he was on board Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 when it crashed off Comoros during a botched hijacking.






WATCH Mo & Me Episode Six: Just an Ordinary Family

Of the 175 people on board, 125 were killed, including the three hijackers, Mo, 53, and his Camerapix colleague Brian Tetley. 

Bisrat Alemu, an Ethiopian businessman, was on the flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. It was his first international flight. 

Just before the plane crash-landed, he saw a man by the cockpit shouting and trying to negotiate with the hijackers.

It was only later, reading news reports, that Alemu realised the man was Mo. 

For Ethiopians, we love him, really, he is our hero

Bisrat Alemu, passenger on Ethiopian Airlines flight 961

“Ethiopians feel like he was born to expose our hidden tragedy,” says Alemu. “He saved many lives, especially his TV pictures of the 1984 famine.

“For Ethiopians, we love him, really, he is our hero. He is very special for us,” he told Al Jazeera.

Following Mo’s death, tributes flooded in from around the world.






WATCH Mo & Me Episode Seven: Hijack

Former US President George HW Bush, who had pledged $1bn to famine relief, said, “Many millions are alive today because Mohamed Amin risked his life time and time again.”

BBC director general Tony Hall echoed the sentiment, saying: “No news cameraman in recent history has had a greater impact than Mohamed Amin,” he said.

Despite his success, Mo struggled throughout his career to achieve the same level of recognition as those in front of the camera. He had to push for equal billing with reporters on stories, including the 1984 famine report, and sometimes, withheld footage until the network agreed.





Both Mo and Buerk received numerous honours for their coverage of the 1984 famine [Screengrab/Al Jazeera] 

Mo’s impact continues to be felt in the Mohamed Amin Foundation. Established by Salim in 1998, it aims to promote African voices telling African stories through journalism training.

“He did get a little bit frustrated that every time there were big stories, they would be covered mainly by international correspondents and African journalists who had more local knowledge and more context for the stories weren’t being utilised,” says Salim. 

“This was his constant frustration. Organisations used him to film and to cover these stories because he had the reputation, but he was among the very few that were always given the opportunity to tell those stories”.

As the Camerapix team move to digitise the millions of images in Mo’s archive, Salim hopes they will serve not only as a reminder of his father’s talent and drive, but also a way for Africans to learn about their past.

“I would like to see them donated to every primary and secondary school in Africa so that teachers can use in their history classes,” he says.

“I’d like to donate them to the continent as part of his legacy, which will be that children for generations to come remember him.”

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