The camera as conscience
Sir Mohinder Dhillon’s autobiography, My Camera, My Life, recounts his epic life journey in Africa and around the world
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.
WINSTON CHURCHILL’S GUNCARRAIGE FOR JOMO KENYATTA
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.
PICTURES OF TRANSFORMATIVE EVENTS
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.
EMPEROR SELASSIE ‘DIES MANY DEATHS’ IN HIS JUBILEE PALACE
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).
MOHINDER DHILLON IS KNIGHTED
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.