Monday, February 28, 2011

Mohamed ‘Mo’ Amin: A tribute to African top Photojournalist

Imagine as a photojournalist while on an assignment, you lose an arm in an ammunition dump explosion, how would you feel on your career prospects? Visual this picture with, let’s say, Jamaican top sprinter Usain Bolt involved in a car accident and having his legs amputated.

This may be pessimistic but that is exactly what happened to African top and most decorated photojournalist Mohamed “Mo” Amin from a Kenyan while on an assignment for VISNEWS and the BBC in Ethiopia.

On that fateful month of June 1991, Mo was covering the fall of Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam has he was being outset by Eritrean and Tigray rebels after 16 years of bloody rule.

His colleague John Mathai lost his life.

For 48 hours while Mo was in a coma, the doctors amputated his left arm which was shattered with bullets and shrapnel beyond healing.

The news of the accident which precedent his death 5 years later on 23rd November 1996, was received by shock throughout the world.

Condolences were from John Birt and Marmaduke Hussey who were BBC director general and Chairman respectively, actor Stefanie Power who was Mo great admirer and former US president George Bush, Snr who in 1985 white house reception praised Mo of bravery in “risking his life daily to arouse the conscious of mankind”

In a spirit of bravery against despair and defeat, Mo is quoted in October 1991 Drum as saying; “I’m lucky to be alive and I will film again.”

And exactly 2 weeks after the blast Mo was already in his company Camerapix, Nairobi with a left empty shirt sleeve- doing his work

This spirit saw Mo cover his best documentary of the Ethiopian famine of 1984 that gave him world wide acclaim. The seven minute film for BBC accompanied by Michael Buerk voice was broadcasted on 23rd October and re-televised in 425 other stations in the world.

The film was a by the way for Mo after covering Mengistu’s 10 years rule celebration in Addis Ababa before moving to Korem, a small town.

“There was this tremendous mass of people, groaning and weeping, scattered across the ground in the dawn mist” he recalled.

The film made the greatest impact on donation with over $1 billion raised within a year. Irish pop singer Bob Geldof organized a fundraising record Do they know it’s Christmas, while Harry Belafonte produced We are the world written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and arranged by Quincy Jones.

This and other coverage in war ravaged areas was an eye to the world

“Like tens of thousands of other Ethiopians in Diaspora, I anxiously followed the events in Addis via the media. Throughout the 80s you have been our eyes. I very much hope that you will recover, mentally as well as physically from the horror” Mrs. Belai an Ethiopian Diaspora living in England wrote to Amin in hospital during the accident.

Amin believed that a good photojournalist should often be ready for anything. The 1984 film was just a backstage of Mengistu’s celebration, while he was fully dressed with a topper hat while covering Jean-Bedel Bokassa coronation as emperor of Central African Republic in 1977.

But it wasn’t all glamour; “A newsman has to take risks and sometimes they backfire” he said after a 27 days prison stint in Zanzibar after taking photograph of a military parade.

His friend and colleague Brian Tetley, who died with Amin in 23rd November 1996 plane crash aboard Ethiopian airline intercepted by hijackers to Nairobi to Comoros Island, recalled Amin shooting Search for the Nile with a broken rib in 1971.

“While on our way to Ripon Falls we met Seven Ugandan soldiers in a drunken stupor. One of the soldiers pulled me from the car and knocked me to the ground” Narrates Tetley “He placed the rifle on my head and started fiddling with the trigger”

It was Amin who moved from the passenger’s seat and negotiated with the soldiers who broke his ribs with the rifle butt before letting them to pass at last.

Later, unruffled Amin took the footage for the television series with a broken rib while Tetley sat by watching painfully.

It was this strength of mind of fighting for justice that saw him on his last hours on the tragic plane trying to rally other passengers against hijackers. The plane crushed while he was still standing and he knocked his head on the roof before dying.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Born in 29th August 1943 at Eastleigh, Nairobi Mo talents as a pressman, photographer, publisher and entrepreneur started at young age. His skills, courage and resourcefulness saw him start as a freelance photographer in 50s during the freedom struggle.

In 1961 he was the cameraman for CBS TV’s Face the Nation and become the producer at his 20s for BBC six hour documentaries Search for the Nile which won an Emmy.

He also produced Journey of a lifetime, six documentaries on Vanishing Africa tiled Hunters of the Jade Sea and African Calvary on Ethiopia’s famine which were screened on the BBC.

His entrepreneurial will saw him start Camerapix Company in Dar-es-Salaam in 1962 before moving it to Nairobi 3 years later. Apart from producing over 30 magnificent pictorial books on travel, culture, wildlife and religion, the business published for Ethiopian Airlines an in-flight magazine Selamta.

His venturing into publishing was inspired when he self publish his first book Pilgrimage to Mecca after being turned down by publishers. He would go ahead to publish Journey through series of books about Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania, Nepal, Zimbabwe and Maldives.

Mo spirit lives on in Africa

Mo distinguished career aided by his multi-talents nurtured through experience, persistence and courage saw him on the frontline of wars, riots, disasters and just common life that saw his lens record history for the world.

After his tragic death, his wife Dolly and son Salim Amin succeeded him at the Camerapix and started the Mohamed Amin Foundation with a motor ‘Mo Force: The Legend lives on…”

The foundation is a reputable trainer of best photojournalists and movie producers who have left a mark not only in Africa but world wide.

Partnering with Al-Jazeera, Camerapix produced a documentary Mo and Me which won Best International Documentary in Los Angeles International Film Festival in June 2006.

The documentary is available at Youtube.

Working closely with journalists Michael Buerk, Colin Blane and Tahir Shah, Salim Amin started A24 News Channel in Nairobi targeting African with news and a range of topics in 24/7 basis.

Other remarkable programs by the foundation are The African Journal, Hatua TV talks show and Polar meets Solar with the aid of David Johnson and Christel De Wit, among others.

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