Category Archives: Photographer

Mohammed Amin (Mo)

Coming from a rather ‘information sheltered’ upbringing in Kenya, I was exposed rather late to the photographers who make it into the history of photography compilations. Those that I was exposed to, seem unremarkable in comparison. Their work mostly graced the coffee table, or the touristy section of the bookshop, with titles like, Beautiful Kenya, or Vanishing Africa (some of them awesome photographers in their own right).

One of these photographers, Mo (Mohamed Amin), became very well known.

I remember him for two things, his pictures of sunsets – some that showed the sun so high in the sky that the scene could never have been so orange, as though he’d not been bothered to wait, and had thrown on an orange filter to get the effect – and for his images of “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

But neither of those are what made him big, big. In 1984 he hit the world stage with what might as well be one of the first links in the chain of starving people pictures.

Aidan Hartley in his absolutely ripping book ‘Zanzibar Chest‘ writes:

“His greatest triumph was TV footage, voiced over by the BBC’s Michael Buerk, of the first pictures to break the 1984 Ethiopian famine. Mo’s pictures whipped up publicity, rock songs and concerts that raised funds for food that probably saved a further two million from hungry deaths. He may have seemed diffident but he was as conceited as hell and never let you forget about his fame

“Mo proudly showed me his office. Covering the walls were framed snaps of Mo with Bob Geldof, Queen Elizabeth giving Mo his MBE medal, Mo with Sidney Pointer, Mo with sundry Third world despots, honorary degrees, TV awards and a platinum disk of the song ‘We are the world’.”

In Africa one has to be able to face blood and guts. Facing the whimsical Idi Amin is likely to make you shake your head in disbelief, while expecting at any moment a sudden death sentence after a joke turned sour.

Mo had one major talent of many, he was always on the spot:

‘He was no media cowboy, no thrill seeker…. he was brave and committed, and his genius was being there when it happened.’ – Michael Buerk

He died in the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines Flight 96 crash, November 23, 1996.

So you want to be a photographer?

The question of cash for writing reminds me of Paul Theroux; a while ago I read his book ‘Sir Vidias Shadow’. Some writers, as Paul Theroux reveals about himself in this book, often have a sense of having to ‘hide’ (or at least not reveal, solidly) the fact that they are writers until they achieve some form of recognition (this is also true for photographers as noted by Robert Adams who felt apologetic for being a photographer until he was earning money).

Saying that one wants to write, or one intends to be a writer is not the same as saying, with confidence and absolute self belief, ‘I am a writer.’

Publishing a book is one kind of recognition; a form of ritualised initiation, receiving acceptance from a successful writer is another (Naipaul accepts Theroux as writer). Any writer would be satisfied with this, but a little something is missing: would our writer not want to establish absolute certainty? Money may or may not be forthcoming – but gladly accepted if and when it does, it is the cherry on the cake, a final recognition; a medal of achievement from the reader. Money means that a writer can do writing all day and everyday if it so pleases him. When someone asks, ‚”What do you do?” you reply with comfortable finality: “I am a writer”

Had Theroux not achieved his recognition, would he have eventually stopped writing, I wonder? Probably not, but would he have called himself a writer? I propose, he would still be calling himself a teacher of English.

Ultimately it is the reader who bestows the title and money is one gauge of this, but writing from the heart does not require a title, nor recognition – except, surely, by at least one reader.

There is another perspective though, one where writing is a necessary skill for everyone. A journalist is a writer, a traveller can be a writer. Sebald, a master of writing (and found images – which he splices amongst his texts) himself, finds scientists to be better writers that bona fide ‘writers’. Come to think of it, my favourite books are not written by writers but by journalists, scientists, investigators and the new writers of the age bloggers.

It seems this line of thought may also be true – we all now have a camera of sorts – for photgraphers. So you want to be a photographer? Perhaps this is good advice:

Don’t, whatever you do, take a fine arts degree in photography, take a science degree (or a degree covering your subject matter to be, anything but photography) such as zoology, ecology, biology, agricultural science, or perhaps even an athropology degree, – being a doctor, too, would be ideal. This way your profession will pay for you, take you to interesting places and while your out there you can do photography.