The cam­era as con­science

Sir Mohinder Dhillon’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, My Cam­era, My Life, re­counts his epic life jour­ney in Africa and around the world

The Star (Kenya) - - Sasa - BY JOE ADAMA /@TheS­tarKenya

My Cam­era, My Life, By Sir Mohinder Dhillon, pp 688, Mkuki na Ny­ota Pub­lish­ers Ltd., 2016

CAM­ERA­MAN Mohinder Dhillon, 85, is not well known at all to many Kenyans born af­ter 1970, but his re­mark­able life story will fas­ci­nate gen­er­a­tions for many years to come. It is told in the first per­son in this three-vol­ume au­to­bi­og­ra­phy ti­tled My Cam­era, My Life. It is beau­ti­fully printed and il­lus­trated, with pho­tos in a boxed set by pub­lish­ers Mkuki na Ny­ota (The Spear and the Star) of Dar es Salaam.

Sir Mohinder’s life story will en­thrall even mem­bers of the ‘My Phone, My Life’ meme gen­er­a­tion, ob­sessed as they are with the mo­bile phone cam­era selfie, many of them mil­len­ni­als.

This au­to­bi­og­ra­phy tells the story of Mohinder’s epic life’s jour­ney in the 20th Cen­tury in Africa and else­where in the world. Mohinder was an eye­wit­ness to his­tory as one of the fore­most news pho­tog­ra­phers of the early In­de­pen­dence era and the height of the Cold War. And he was of­ten on the front­lines of the mul­ti­ple con­flicts of the im­me­di­ate post­colo­nial era, in­clud­ing coups d’etat, hu­man­i­tar­ian crises and strug­gles against tyranny.

Mohinder’s story cap­tures slides and slices of mo­men­tous his­tory as it un­folded. He was of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­pher to Ethiopia’s Em­peror Haile Se­lassie and had an un­usu­ally close re­la­tion­ship with ‘Field Mar­shal’ Idi Amin Dada, the Ugan­dan dic­ta­tor whose name re­mains a by­word for bru­tal­ity and bar­bar­ity.

Mohinder’s mem­oirs were nar­rated to two fine writ­ers – Gor­don Boy and David Kaiza – and un­like too many books on great Kenyans in re­cent years are su­perbly well-writ­ten and com­pe­tently edited. The cover of Part I has a strik­ing, high-def­i­ni­tion black and white pho­to­graph of the au­thor taken in 1957 in Nairobi by Teji Thind, when Mohinder had film star looks. It is only 181 pages long and takes his story from 1931, when he was born, to 1966, six years af­ter the found­ing of his iconic photo stu­dio and me­dia com­pany, Afr­icapix.

The Fore­word is by Jon Snow, le­gendary pre­sen­ter of Bri­tain’s Chan­nel Four News and a col­lab­o­ra­tor with Sir Mohinder on many world-class me­dia projects.

Snow ex­plains the be­gin­nings of this ex­tra­or­di­nary bond with Mohinder in his Fore­word:

“When in 1967, at the age of 18, I was sent to Uganda on Vol­un­tary Ser­vice Over­seas, I had never been out of Eng­land; nor had I ever been on a plane. East Africa, then, was

to give me my first taste of life in a for­eign land.

“My des­ti­na­tion was the old cot­ton ship­ping rail head at Na­masa­gali, on the banks of the Vic­to­ria Nile. I taught there, for a year, in the mis­sion school which had sup­planted the rail head.

“. . . By an as­ton­ish­ing co­in­ci­dence, it turned out that Mohinder’s fa­ther had once run that old rail head at Na­masa­gali, surely one of the most ob­scure of all colo­nial-era fa­cil­i­ties in Uganda. The tracks and ware­houses and the Dhillon fam­ily’s old Sta­tion Mas­ter’s House were 15 miles from the near­est tar­mac road, and many times as far again from any cen­tre of com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity. So the idea that we could both be linked to such a re­mote out­post seemed un­canny, to say the least.

“With this re­mark­able dis­cov­ery be­gan a strong, en­dur­ing bond of friend­ship be­tween the two of us, which to this day has never flagged.”

Mohinder and Snow trav­elled to­gether to Africa’s hotspots of the 1960s and ’70s – civil-war-rav­aged Eritrea, the Su­dan, Ethiopia, So­ma­lia, Rwanda, Tan­za­nia and many other places.


Even be­fore the book gets go­ing, Snow pro­vides the reader with a gem of ob­ser­va­tion, the first of many to be found through­out the nar­ra­tive and an ex­clu­sive in its own right: “. . . We both at­tended the won­drous State Fu­neral of Jomo Keny­atta. I shall never for­get how, on the night be­fore this fu­neral, the two of us stole about in the dark, get­ting shots of white Bri­tish sol­diers train­ing their black Kenyan coun­ter­parts in the art of the slow march and the horse-drawn gun-car­riage.”

Snow doesn’t say this, but that horse-drawn gun car­riage was on loan from the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, a rare and re­mark­able ges­ture, given that it was the same one used to carry Bri­tain’s great wartime leader Win­ston Churchill’s cof­fin dur­ing his State fu­neral in London on Jan­uary 30, 1965. Churchill’s send-off was the first State fu­neral for a com­moner in Bri­tain, where such cer­e­monies are re­served for the monarch.

Sir Mohinder be­gins his own won­drous story by ex­press­ing his sense of awe at what he has been through. “Look­ing back over the more than 83 years I have spent in this world, I can­not help but feel a sense of won­der . . . How as a sim­ple vil­lage boy from Pun­jab, who never even fin­ished school, did I end up trav­el­ling the globe, dodg­ing bul­lets to make a liv­ing by shoot­ing thou­sands of me­tres of film in some of the world’s most dan­ger­ous trou­ble spots?”

He once re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion to dine with Char­lie Chap­lin.


For older Kenyans who paid any at­ten­tion to me­dia and cur­rent af­fairs, Sir Mohinder is syn­ony­mous with his great com­pany Afr­icapix, a me­dia out­fit that was in the right place at the right time and abun­dantly equipped to record his­tory-in-the mak­ing mo­ments. He de­votes Chap­ter Five of Part I, ti­tled “Afr­icapix: The Early Years”, to this world fa­mous com­pany, where he rem­i­nisces, “At a time of mo­men­tous po­lit­i­cal change, as coun­tries all over Africa were gear­ing up for na­tional in­de­pen­dence af­ter decades of colo­nial rule, there was sud­denly an in­sa­tiable de­mand, in Europe and around the world, for im­ages from Africa. Lead­ing in­ter­na­tional news agen­cies, like United Press In­ter­na­tional (UPI), for whom I was al­ready sup­ply­ing wired pho­to­graphs, were vy­ing for pic­tures of trans­for­ma­tive events un­fold­ing across the con­ti­nent. Tele­vi­sion, then still in its in­fancy as a news medium, was ex­pand­ing fast too, cre­at­ing a new global mar­ket for film footage.

“. . . McMil­lan’s ‘wind of change’ was in­deed sweep­ing across the con­ti­nent. And Afr­icapix was be­ing swept along in the slip­stream.”

Part II of My Cam­era, My Life, cov­ers the years 1967-1985, the pe­riod in which Mohinder achieved his great­est pre­em­i­nence and world­wide fame, when he made his mark.

He cov­ered the war in Aden, joined Haile Se­lassie on his 1968 world tour and struck up a chummy re­la­tion­ship with Amin, the Butcher of Uganda. He also cov­ered Amin’s mass ex­pul­sion of Asians, mostly In­di­ans and Pak­ista­nis, from Uganda to Bri­tain and other places in the Western world. It was also in this pe­riod that he cov­ered the Ethiopian Famine of 1983-84, which was also filmed and pho­tographed by an­other Kenyan pho­tog­ra­pher of Asian her­itage, the le­gendary Mo­hamed Amin. The epic bat­tle of the Mos started dur­ing this stu­pen­dous tragedy which they brought to the world’s at­ten­tion and pricked the con­science of mil­lions.

The ques­tion is asked to this day which pho­to­jour­nal­ist con­trib­uted more to prick­ing the world’s con­science over the Ethiopian Famine – Cam­er­apix’s Mo Amin or Afr­icapix’s Mo Dhillon. The lat­ter makes his ver­sion of events and his feel­ings of be­trayal in this part of his mem­oirs.


Mohinder also tells the story of Em­peror Se­lassie’s down­fall in 1973-74 in this sec­tion, in Chap­ter Six­teen, en­ti­tled “End of a Dy­nasty in Ethiopia”, ob­serv­ing at one point: “Late in 1973, I re­turned to Ad­dis Ababa fol­low­ing the death of Abebe Bik­ila. . . . By this time, the bar­rage of protest di­rected at Haile Se­lassie had be­come un­stop­pable. Day af­ter day, mobs of an­gry, chant­ing protestors had taken to press­ing up against the outer gates of the Ju­bilee Palace, hold­ing aloft plac­ards pro­claim­ing ‘Death to the Em­peror’, ‘Down with the tyrant,’ ‘The Em­peror is a thief’, or ‘The Em­peror must be hanged.’ Clearly vis­i­ble from the bal­conies of the palace, th­ese demon­stra­tions must have left Haile Se­lassie feel­ing ut­terly bereft – as one who was be­ing forced into hav­ing to die many deaths.”

Se­lassie had been en­throned the year be­fore Mohinder was born, in 1930, and the event had cap­tured the West’s me­dia at­ten­tion like no other hap­pen­ing in Africa up to that time, with the ex­cep­tion of the Boer War in South Africa (October 11 1889 to May 31 1902 ). The BBC has the fol­low­ing to say on one of its web­sites: “Haile Se­lassie’s coro­na­tion was a lav­ish event at­tended by roy­als and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all over the world. The New York Times re­ported on the ex­pen­sive gifts re­ceived by the at­ten­dees and spec­u­lated that the cel­e­bra­tions may have cost more than $3,000,000 (Sh300mil­lion). Time Mag­a­zine ded­i­cated its iconic cover to the Em­peror: It was a world sen­sa­tion.

“Soon af­ter his coro­na­tion, Haile Se­lassie gave Ethiopia its first writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion, which greatly re­stricted the pow­ers of Par­lia­ment. Ef­fec­tively, he was the Ethiopian gov­ern­ment. Suc­ces­sion to the throne was re­stricted to his de­scen­dants and, the con­sti­tu­tion stated, ‘the per­son of the Em­peror is sa­cred, his dig­nity in­vi­o­lable, and his power in­dis­putable’.

“But in Jamaica, Haile Se­lassie was be­com­ing more than the name of a pow­er­ful em­peror.”

Dei­fied by the Rasta­far­i­ans of Jamaica and else­where (Mohinder re­ports that Bob Marley was con­verted to Rasta­far­i­an­ism in 1966 af­ter his wife Rita took him to the air­port in Kingston and they joined thou­sands of Ja­maicans who wel­comed Se­lassie on his first visit to the Caribbean), the em­peror nonethe­less came to an ig­no­ble end. He was over­thrown by the os­ten­si­bly Marx­ist Mengistu Haile Mariam, mov­ing Ethiopia from feu­dal­ism to bar­bar­ity and the Famine of 1983-84.

My Life, My Cam­era is a book that has many fe­lic­i­ties and is to be highly rec­om­mended, in­clud­ing to young read­ers. How­ever, it is badly in need of a more com­pre­hen­sive ta­ble of con­tents than the one that ap­pears at the end of Vol­ume III and con­trives to do duty for all three books.

And while Mohinder’s mem­ory is not al­ways photographic in its ex­ac­ti­tude, his writ­ers and ed­i­tors go along with what he says any­way. For in­stance, he gets the date of Jomo Keny­atta’s as­cen­sion to the Pres­i­dency wrong (plac­ing it in June 1964 – it was in De­cem­ber); he then places Pres­i­dent Keny­atta at Tom Mboya’s fu­neral (Mzee at­tended the Re­quiem Mass at the Holy Fam­ily Basil­ica, in the shadow of the In­ter-Con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel, Nairobi. Mboya was buried on Rusinga Is­land, Lake Vic­to­ria).


Part III of the book cov­ers the years af­ter 1986, and in­cludes Chap­ter 30, en­ti­tled “Adieu: Last Days with Ambi”, a mov­ing ac­count of his beloved wife’s fi­nal bat­tle with con­gen­i­tal di­a­betes in 1990.

It is also in this sec­tion that Mohinder ex­plains the prove­nance of his knight­hood, which some re­view­ers of th­ese mem­oirs have pre­sumed was awarded by Queen El­iz­a­beth II of Bri­tain. Mohinder’s dec­o­ra­tion was not by the Bri­tish at all, al­though the cer­e­mony would take place in London. This is how he tells it in his own words on Page 638 of his mem­oirs:

“On October 19, 2005, within days of my re­turn­ing to Nairobi, I re­ceived an ex­tra­or­di­nary e-mail im­age – from a Pro­fes­sor Fred­er­ick J Trow­man, whom I had never heard of.

“In his brief mes­sage, Pro­fes­sor Trow­man in­formed me that, in recog­ni­tion of “out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions to hu­man­ity”, it had been de­cided that I should be in­ducted into the Im­pe­rial Ethiopian Or­der of St Mary of Zion – as a “Knight Com­man­der”. I was nom­i­nated (the mes­sage went on to re­late) for “hav­ing per­formed, through news­reel pho­tog­ra­phy, the dis­tin­guished hu­man­i­tar­ian ser­vice of bring­ing to the at­ten­tion of the world com­mu­nity crit­i­cal is­sues af­fect­ing the wel­fare of the African con­ti­nent”.


1. Prime Min­is­ter Jomo Keny­atta with Sir Mohinder Dhillon in 1964. 2. Sir Mohinder. 3. Mohinder in ac­tion in the war in Aden in 1967. 4. Harry Be­la­fonte with Sir Mohinder dur­ing a re­union in 2004. 5. White farmer Jimmy Hughes uses a sjam­bok to chase chil­dren off his farm in 1963. The farm was sold in an auc­tion im­me­di­ately af­ter Kenya’s In­de­pen­dence. 6. Muam­mar Gaddafi with Idi Amin.

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