If you look on these images - some of them are shown overleaf - they will trigger something in the back of your mind. Ah yes, famine in Africa. And if you are particularly au fait with the affairs of that continent, you will know at once they were taken in Ethiopia in 1984. You will think, too, of Bob Geldof and the Live Aid concert of 1985, the remarkable 16- hour charity concert which touched hearts and pockets around the world.
You may also recognise the face of the man who took the photos. In its way, this too is remarkable. He was a TV cameraman - an agency cameraman - and cameramen are supposed to be anonymous. Do we know Kate Adie's cameraman? No. But there are thousands who can put a name to the face of Mohamed Amin.
Ethiopia metamorphosed Amin into a celebrity. Bob Geldof said of him that he "succeeded above all else in showing you his own disgust and shame and anger and making it yours also." He also succeeded, ultimately, in raising millions of dollars to bring food to millions of people who would otherwise have starved.
It almost didn't happen. Mohamed, who was at the time the Africa bureau chief for the international television news agency Visnews, had long had his eye on Tigray province in the north of Ethiopia. He suspected the famine had hit the hardest there, even though little news had come out of the region to corroborate this. He was persuading Visnews to let him do the story at the same time that the BBC's Michael Buerk, then based in South Africa, was lobbying his editors. (Immediately before, Amin had been filming Brooke Shields on safari for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.) Amin and Buerk, who had worked together often before, agreed to team up, with Mohamed acting as cameraman to Buerk's presenter. They then set about the far more challenging task of obtaining the necessary permits from the Ethiopian administration, which was in the throes of celebrating 10 years of rule under dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.
The media had been consistently refused access to Tigray, where the military was trying to suppress a rebellion. It took two months to obtain permission to travel there, using Mohamed's impeccable contacts inside the government. Finally Mohamed, Michael Buerk and Michael Wooldridge, BBC radio's East Africa correspondent, were in possession of the correct travel documents. But they still had no transport. What transpired was crucial to the assignment.
Mohamed, who was one of the media's consummate fixers, bumped into some American officials of the Christian relief organisation World Vision in Addis Ababa. He chatted them up. He said he would take footage and stills of the Americans with the starving Ethiopians so that they could raise money back home for their relief efforts. In return they agreed to fly the BBC/Visnews team wherever they wanted to go in their Twin Otter plane. Without that deal, the story would never have been told.
By this time the famine, which Mengistu had so far succeeded in hiding from the rest of the world, had tipped over from crisis to catastrophe. The three men couldn't believe what they saw: 80,000 people in one place waiting for food that wasn't there. "You normally talk to your sound man or the correspondent and discuss things," Mohamed said afterwards. "There was no discussion whatsoever. I just shot it, and let the visuals speak for themselves. People were dying in front of the camera. It changed me. Before that, I couldn't have cared less. Anything I filmed was just a story"
"Mo was very moved on that trip," Michael Buerk said. "His usual badinage - `The stiffs are beginning to smell' and that sort of thing - completely slipped away. We went through it all together in a very emotional way."
In Mohamed's case, this was extraordinary. He had a reputation for being one of the most hard-bitten of the Nairobi hack pack. I knew him at the time. African-born, like Mohamed, I was then working for the Economist. I had an office down the hall from his in the Press Centre. My editor had sighed, "Not starving people again," when I'd suggested I go on that trip.
On his return, Mohamed called me in to look at the rough cuts and warned me that I would cry. I was one of millions. Ronald Reagan, standing for re-election at the time, wiped away a tear when he saw the news clip and pledged $40m towards the relief effort on the spot.
We almost didn't get a chance to show we had hearts. The BBC only aired the story because of Michael Buerk's moving commentary and the fact there were no major stories breaking that day to compete for airtime. When Visnews initially offered it to Eurovision, without Buerk's commentary, they turned it down, saying that they had been saturated with starving Africans. NBC in the States, in the midst of covering presidential elections, would have done the same but changed its mind after its London bureau chief rang up and pushed it in person.
It is rare for a newsroom to fall silent, but that is what happened at NBC. Paul Greenberg, then NBC's executive producer, remembers: "All the gossip and talk just stopped. Tears came to your eyes and you felt as if you'd just been hit in the stomach."
Mohamed could have rested on his laurels, but he didn't. He said to me, "I'm going to do a documentary on this. I'll get Mother Teresa to do the intro. She's the right person to plug it." And just for good measure, he got the Pope, Margaret Thatcher, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia to voice their concern on-camera as well.
The result was African Calvary, a 40-minute documentary (broadcast on BBC2 in April 1985) which capitalised on the mood of the moment and received enthusiastic reviews. You could almost hear the violin strings in the background while you were watching it, but it was good. And it established Mohamed's credentials as a producer and his ability to win celebrity support.
I'd had my doubts about Mother Teresa, but I was wrong. They were alike in many ways. Both came of peasant stock and intuitively understood the people among whom they worked. Both were pragmatic, unsentimental and fanatically driven to achieve their objectives. Neither took kindly to people who pulled rank but did so shamelessly themselves when it suited their purposes. Both were equally at ease with dying slum children and the heads of government.
No one who ever worked near him doubted that Mohamed could network. He was on first name terms with all the ministers, press secretaries and bodyguards. Every president knew him - even Idi Amin, whom he tracked down and interviewed in Jeddah. He was a PR man par excellence. He knew the value of contacts.
He correctly pointed out that being a good journalist in Africa is 95 per cent about logistics. He was a composite of travel agent extraordinaire and maestro lobbyist. That's how he managed to persuade obdurate officials and drunken soldiers to part with information and permits and sniffed out the transport to get him in and his film out. He bantered with everyone and then bullied them for good measure if the soft touch didn't work. In a way, he viewed Africa like a large piece of machinery of which he was the engineer. He knew every cog and lever and what to push or pull to set things in motion.
Colin Blane, another former BBC radio correspondent for East Africa, relates the story of when he and Mohamed interviewed the Sudanese president Omar Hassan El-Bashir. At the time the pair of them were waiting to travel into Tigray with the Ethiopian rebels. Mohamed set up his camera on a tripod and left it running while he walked about the room taking stills. Colin was intrigued by his seeming nonchalance. "Simple," explained Mohamed later. "Now we have pictures of you shaking hands with the president. They'll get us through all the roadblocks on the way to the border."
I WAS first exposed to the Amin way of operating 20 years ago, as a fledgling journalist. I was struggling to make ends meet, and he offered me a room in his offices. I paid a nominal rent: Mohamed gave away nothing. His strong instinct for squeezing the last cent out of every deal often confounded his colleagues.
Yet he always had an open door and considered advice for newcomers. His office was a work-in-progress showcase of a man with a healthy ego. It was cluttered with papers, lightboxes, phones and fax, and scores of the titles he had published through his company Camerapix. In later years, the walls were hung with photos of him greeting royalty, celebrities and politicians. His myriad awards were on display too. He was made an MBE in 1992, and received the Order of the Grand Warrior, Kenya's highest decoration.
He tended to shuffle through his paperwork as you talked, grunting and expelling little snorts through his nose, but he was listening. This and other eccentricities displayed his impatience with the slow pace of the rest of the world. He rose at 2am every day, to attack a workload large enough for a team. When he died, there were 20 publications in progress.
He walked with a limp because one leg became 2in shorter than the other after a car accident. He took off the cast before the leg had healed properly so that he could get back to work. In 1991, his left arm was blown off while he was filming an exploding munitions dump in Addis Ababa. His soundman, John Mathai, was killed. Mohamed was lucky to emerge alive.
He was back behind the camera within four months, having been fitted with a battery-charged bionic arm. It operated by muscle impulses picked up electronically in the biceps and triceps of his upper arm. He focused his camera with a specially designed rotating hand. And he learnt to cut the nails of his remaining fingers with a nail clipper grasped in his toes - rather than rely on someone else to do it for him.
Mohamed's 26-year-old son Salim, his only child, says he was afraid of nothing except the prospect of being so badly wounded he would be unable to continue working. He never took a holiday because his job was his recreation, and although he loved his family, Salim and Mohamed's wife Dolly had to visit him in the office if they wanted to see him on the weekends.
Typically, he showed no fear during his last, fatal, hijacked flight. Survivors of the Ethiopian Airlines crash two weeks ago reported that he remained calm throughout the ordeal, taking copious notes for the scoop. When the pilot announced that the plane was going to make a crash landing in the sea, just 500 yards off the Comoros Islands, he rose from his seat to try to talk some sense into the hijackers. Those of us who had an abiding affection for him prayed, and for a while believed, that he would emerge, unscathed and as invincible as ever, filming the wreckage. At the time of impact he was not wearing his seatbelt. He was killed instantly from a broken neck. I received many phone calls from around the world at the time of his death from friends who felt as bereft as I did. Not one could answer the question I asked. Why was he so driven?
It would be easy to say that danger became a drug or that he was trying to prove something to himself. His background casts some light on this. His father was a Sunni Muslim who came to East Africa from Jallundar (in the part of the Punjab that is now in Pakistan) in 1927, to work as a labourer on the construction of the Uganda railway. There were eight children; Mohamed was born in Nairobi in 1943. The family was poor, and Mohamed's father struggled to feed and clothe them. The Asian community of pre-independence East Africa existed in social limbo. They were often resented for their success by the native Africans and at the same time patronised by the British colonials. Perhaps Mohamed wanted to prove he was as good as the next man. But that was only part of the riddle. Even close family members failed to plumb his depths.
By 11, Mohamed knew that he wanted to be a photographer and was developing his films in the school lavatory. At 13, his trademark brashness and self- assurance got him official accreditation to the East African Safari Rally.
He left school because it got in the way of his career and by 20 had his own business which be called Camerapix. He stumbled into filming after he discovered that it earned him better money than stills. He made a name for himself with footage of the bloody Zanzibar revolution of 1964 and, the following year, of a Soviet camp hidden on the island. Subsequently, on returning to Zanzibar, he was incarcerated in the notorious Death House from which few emerged alive. He was beaten and humiliated and released after a month. The fact of surviving such a horrific experience may have erased any fear of future dangers.
Mohamed's detractors, specifically the camera crews from competing networks or agencies, said he was ruthless and an arriviste. Those who admired him made the rebuttal that he was fiercely - some would say, obsessively - competitive. Certainly he never allowed other crews to ship their film on the chartered planes he somehow lured into war zones. He got a lot of scoops that way, which is what he was paid to do. He may not have gone out of his way to be helpful, but he never sabotaged the work of other film crews - which is the ethical fault line of journalism.
When he aroused enmity, which he did, I think it was often to do with the way he delivered the message. He could be wondrously blunt. He was funny and fun to be with, but he didn't waste his charms on the opposition. Part of this manner was because he came from a different culture. Although he had been shrewd enough to become a British citizen following the expulsion of Asians from East Africa in the Seventies, his allegiance, if not his passport, remained ostentatiously nailed to the African mast. He spoke fluent Swahili, the East African lingua franca. It was yet another attribute which gave him the edge over visiting television crews. His English was almost flawless, but there were one or two words which betrayed his Punjabi mother tongue. "Gwawa" instead of "guava" always made me chuckle.
I sometimes accompanied Mohamed - imported for my knowledge of the locals - on trips he made to Samburu in northern Kenya as part of his series of coffee-table travel books. Instead of going into contortions of PC- ness, as many would have done, bending over backwards not to transgress the customs of an alien culture, Mohamed strode right in. Warriors were ordered to stand here with their spears held like that, their eyes on the lens. He behaved like John Huston, stage-directing left, right and centre and dishing out notes to the extras.
Once, at a circumcision ceremony of 100 boys at which ritual hysteria was well underway, Mohamed inadvertently blocked the path of a ceremonial cow. An enraged warrior descended on him brandishing a club topped with a lethal-looking nut filched from the wheel of a seven-ton truck. His intention was clear. He was going to bash Mohamed's brains out. I shouted a warning. Mohamed turned his camera on the warrior and kept on filming. He didn't miss a beat.
The Samburu loved him. He was chairman of SAIDIA, a rural development programme for the Samburu with which I was involved. It was an aspect of his life that he never talked about. We used to meet in his office at 7.30am. Even at that hour his stunning energy was apparent. He was efficient and calm, slicing to the point through our sleepy ramblings. He exercised his role with efficiency and tact and championed the byzantine, pastoralist viewpoints of the Samburu at moments when they were in danger of being eclipsed by the managerial mode of some of the European committee members.
He was a man of the Third World, which was one of the reasons he was so successful within his ever-expanding ambit. (This eventually included publishing coffee-table books and guidebooks as well as covering countless wars and other trouble spots.) He had an invaluable capacity for explaining Africa to the world. It underpinned his success as much as his inexplicable drive. He was a hero to the Samburu and other Africans just as he was to many others.
Mohamed set his own agenda and lived by it. He was too big to have been contained within the mundane world of schedules and regulations. This was why he thrived in wars. By the same token, he was a difficult employee even though he unfailingly delivered the goods wrapped in banner headlines. His relations with his employers were often explosive. He was a man of polar extremes who made a formidable enemy just as he was a terrific friend who inspired love and devotion. He would move heaven and earth for you, if he saw fit.
He was a legendary figure who left a legacy far greater than his pictures. His message, by example, was this. There is no obstacle insurmountable to achieve your ends. A man can change the world and make it a better place. And he did just that.
Mohamed always went to the mountain. !Reuse content