Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1943, as the second son of eight children to a poor railway engineer of Punjabi descent, Mohamed Amin (Mo) was obsessed with photography right from the start. At the age of nine years old, he began saving for a camera which he bought two years later for 40 shillings and at thirteen he was shooting for his school newspaper and The Tanganyika Standard, covering what become the East African Safari Rally (The family had been relocated to Tanzania, following a posting there by the East African Railways). During his teenage years, Mo’s uncanny talent for capturing the faces and spirit of the times led him to quit school and in 1962 set up shop as a professional photographer and establishing his company, Camerapix, in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.
In that same year, 1962, Mo received a tip that two prominent South Africans in the anti-Apartheid movement had escaped prison and had flown to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika (Tanzania) where the new President Julius Nyerere offered them sanctuary. It was the first of many scoops. Mo’s luck was legendary. Good fortune, tip-offs, planning and taking calculated risks all meant he was where the action was, sometimes under gunfire, sometimes enduring weeks of torture, automatic arms fire, explosives and, ultimately, the amputation of his left arm, yet almost always he got his film out. Mo and his company, CameraPix, immediately gained recognition as Mo began covering some of the most important events and controversial issues in a politically changing Africa and his work began appearing in international newspapers such as the BBC, Reuters and Visnews, among others – eventually Mo became the most sought after cameraman on the African continent and ultimately the most decorated news cameraman of all time.
In 1966, at the tender age of 23 years old, Mo was the first person to take pictures of John Gideon Okello leading a bloody mutiny in Zanzibar (John Gideon Okello was the leader of the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964 which overthrew Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah and led to the proclamation of Zanzibar as a Republic). The very first images showing Russian troops training the rebels in Zanzibar were captured by Mo and the capture of this seditious footage resulted in him being kicked out Tanzania after spending 28 days in prison.
Making Kenya his new base allowed Mo to do more than just capture pictures of Nairobi’s life. The world had started seeing Nairobi as the entry-point into East Africa so Mo easily land jobs with international media. Over time Mo became obsessed with the story – “We are in the most powerful profession in the industry; our work reaches millions; we can change the world and it can change Africa, which desperately needs it.”…this was his mantra. His work constantly put him in risky situations as he successfully captured ethnic tensions, political upheavals, and regime changes and the dawning of a new Africa. There was a deep, yet humorous quote by Mo on whether any war story was worth his life, “I’m not afraid of the bullet with my name on it, but I don’t want the bullet that says ‘To whom it may concern.’”
Mo however, is best remembered for helping bring attention to the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 with BBC TV reporter Michael Buerk, a long-time colleague. Filming starved refugees, Mo presented the horrors of the situation yet preserved the dignity of the very proud people. The seven minute clip was shown on BBC’s Six O’clock news on 24 October 1984. The pictures were stark and shocking but the reaction was unprecedented and the project “We Are the World” was born. This project lead to the Live Aid concert in 13 July 1985, which was broadcast worldwide using large-scale satellite link-ups – an estimated global audience of 1.9 billion across 150 nations watched the live broadcast resulting in the largest funds drive the world has ever held, to date!
During a lifetime of chasing big stories up and down Africa, in the end, the story came to Mo on 23 November 1996. Mo was aboard an Ethiopian Airways flight #961 which was hijacked soon after leaving Addis Ababa for Nairobi. When the captain warned frightened passengers that he was running out of fuel, Mo stood up and tried to talk sense into the hijackers. He was still on his feet 15 minutes later when the plane crashed into the sea just off the Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean, killing Mo and his longtime friend and colleague, Brian Tetley and 125 of the 175 passengers and crew on board.
Mo was the man who helped shape our world, one image at a time.
Interview with Salim Mohamed, Camerapix/A24 Media
Africa On The Blog
Polis, Journalism and Society at the LSE
World Press Photo