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Volume 48, Number 2March/April 1997

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Africa's Compassionate Eye

Written by Louis Werner

As television news cameraman, photojournalist, editor and writer, the late Mohamed Amin kept his focus on a single goal: to bear witness to the paradoxically entwined beauty and suffering of modern Africa.

"I consider myself a commuter between the underprivileged and the privileged worlds," he once said to his long-time colleague and biographer, Brian Tetley. This role cost Amin his life November 23 when he was among more than 125 people killed in the crash of a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines jet. He was 53.

Amin was born in Kenya but raised in Tanzania, where at 13 he founded a school camera club. As a middle-schooler he covered an East African auto rally, and by 19 he had set up his own photo agency, Camerapix, which today is the leading source for photographs and news footage of East Africa. He paid his first hard dues as a newsman at the ripe age of 22: expulsion from Tanzania to neighboring Kenya, where he was thereafter based, for making pictures of a coup in Zanzibar.

Amin went on to count his own news coups, from exclusive pictures of a 1966 French police massacre in Djibouti, during former President Charles de Gaulle's visit there, to rare interviews with Uganda's Idi Amin both before and after his downfall. When Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta died in 1978, Amin covered his death and the transition of power. He produced books exposing the illegal ivory trade and the plight of endangered rhinos.

But Amin's commitments went beyond news. In 1976, he produced "Journey of a Lifetime," the first full-length documentary on the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah. It was dubbed into 27 languages, and his stills were adapted into a lavish photographic book, Pilgrimage to Mecca (London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1978), which Amin dedicated to "my Muslim brothers throughout the world." Amin's lyrical prologue, which lays out the historical basis of his faith, is a deeply personal introduction both to the Hajj and to the man behind the camera.

These assignments and projects brought Amin a measure of fame, but they were nothing compared to what followed his foray into Ethiopia in October 1984. The previous May, a story of Amin's about impending famine in northern Ethiopia had run on page one of the Nairobi Sunday Nation but, like many other stories carrying this warning in the previous several years, it was largely ignored by the rest of the world.

Following delicate negotiations with Ethiopian officials—Amin was known among his colleagues as a master of "the access game"—Amin arranged to return to Ethiopia in October with BBC reporter Michael Buerk. There, in the province of Tigre, they found the famine that Amin had warned of, and the suffering that they witnessed seared Amin's soul—and his film—as no other story ever had.

Amin and Buerk left Ethiopia at once. By nightfall the next day, Amin's footage had run before millions of viewers around the world.

In the coming weeks, it ran again and again: Never in the history of television news have pictures taken on such a life of their own. Almost at once, money and food donations from governments and individuals poured into international relief agencies. United States President Ronald Reagan said he could not get Amin's images out of his head, and authorized $45 million in emergency funding on the spot. At the bill-signing ceremony, Vice President George Bush said, "Many millions are alive today because Mohamed Amin risked his life time and again."

But Amin, the veteran newsman, knew that the attention of the press would quickly flag. "I feel it is absolutely crucial to keep this story on TV as long as possible, ...and my duty to keep working on it," Tetley recorded him saying at the time. In acceptance speeches for the many awards he received that year—Overseas Press Club, World Media Hunger, British Film and TV Arts among others—he continued to prod news agencies to do more. A year later, Amin himself enlisted support from world leaders, who appeared in his bbc production, "African Calvary." The Guardian called it "not an orthodox documentary, more a requiem."

Ahmad Fawzi, United Nations spokesman and another of Amin's news colleagues, called Amin's death "a sad loss to journalism and to the human race. His pictures brought the conscience of the world to orphan conflicts otherwise unseen, and he contributed mightily to mankind's understanding of the suffering of our fellow man."

Amin is survived by his wife, Dolly, and his son, Salim, who is also an accomplished news cameraman.

"Dad's work was his life, which we will continue," says Salim, who has taken over direction of Camerapix. "We'll complete the projects he left unfinished, such as his autobiography, and mount an exhibition of his pictures to take around the world. We plan to push the agency ever upwards and onwards, as he would have wanted."

Louis Werner, writer and filmmaker, studied at the American University in Cairo, lives in New York, and contributes frequently to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 12-15 of the March/April 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1997 images.