Sir Mohinder Dhillon, the man who photographed all and sundry

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By Tom Odhiambo

Today, the camera is ubiquitous equipment. In fact, cell phones are advertised not as a tool for making and receiving calls, but as having several functions. The most hyped function is the quality of the camera of the phone in question. So, almost everyone has a camera at hand, literally, when a situation that could be photographed happens. But a few years ago, the cameraman or the photographer was a very, very special person; there weren’t many of them around. Indeed, many only saw him at Christmas or New Year celebrations when he cycled or walked around the village, clicking away, capturing memorable times, and images for posterity. Or one would have to go to a photo studio and pose for the cameraman. The photo studio was a magic place, full of characters who played tricks with a camera and produced mementos. A photograph wasn’t something to just take and delete when no longer needed as it is today.

Beginnings
In the days gone, the camera didn’t just make it possible to capture and store images; it was a tool as well. Where Twitter and Facebook have become the ready tools of archiving events and moments – plus the phone camera – the camera was the tool that carried images that changed much of the world in the 20th century. So, cameramen and camerawomen, before the advent of the paparazzi, were the game changers. Men like Sir Mohinder Dhillon influenced the world; the images they recorded even caused revolutions. Their photos, of kings, queens and sportsmen; of political rallies, weddings and funerals; of wildlife; of war; of famine; of everyday life, often changed the world for ever.

There are many reasons why you should read Mohinder Dhillon’s book, My Camera, My Life (Mkuki na Nyota, 2016). These memoirs, narrated to and written by Gordon Boy and David Kaiza, are an enchanting epic in three volumes. Part I, what I could call “the beginnings”, is about Mohinder’s birth in a village called ‘Baba Pur’, in Punjab, India, to migration to Kenya with his parents and settling in Nairobi, to the setting up of Africapix, Mohinder’s photo studio and company that would make him the most famous Kenyan photographer. The stories in this section run between 1931 and 1966.

So, Mohinder, born in colonial India – not knowing his date of birth – says his parents settled for 25 October 1931. Still a child, he migrates, like many of his countrywomen and men, to colonial Africa but with little education. Nairobi of those days, with its racial segregation doesn’t offer him much but, for sure, you will meet a tenacious man in the pages of My Camera, My Life, who is determined to make the best of his life. And Mohinder’s life is changed when one day he walks into a studio, looking for work. He ends up with a camera.

Global adventure
Part II of My Camera, My Life is what I would call the “adventure” section. The timelines here are between 1967 and 1985. Here, you will travel with Mohinder to ‘cover war in Aden’; you will meet the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie – for whom Mohinder was the official photographer; he will the take you to Uganda to cover Idi Amin, as he overthrows Milton Obote; he will be there to record the tragedy of Amin expelling Asians from Uganda… This is the same Amin whom Mohinder photographed for most of his reign.

Indeed, this is what Mohinder says in Part I about Amin” “My relationship with the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was perhaps the most bizarre association of all. I tell people I felt safe near Amin and they don’t believe me. The fact is that Amin was such a lover of publicity that he would never harm media people, although the same, alas, was not always true of those around him.”

In this, probably most exciting of the three sections of the book, Mohinder records the demise of the Ethiopian Dynasty and the end of his work as the official photographer to the emperor and his court. The next key event in the narrative is the “old problem” of elephant poaching. This scourge of wildlife in Kenya has been around pretty much since the colonial times. Elephant hunting has been an exclusive sport for the rich and mighty. But it has been the twin to poaching. And it is this crisis, in the 1970s that spurred Mohinder to be involved in the shooting of the documentary film, Elephant Run in 1977. Conservation has always been one of Mohinder’s private pursuits as he has been involved in several environmental projects.

The Ogaden War – between Ethiopia and Somalia – during Haile Mengistu’s regime in Ethiopia, was one of those really avoidable disputes between African countries stemming from obsession with borders imposed by colonialists, and which separated whole populations of members of the same tribe. Again, Mohinder was there, with his friend and journalist Jon Snow, to capture this tragic dispute that continues to haunt Ethiopia and Somalia to date.

In the following pages, Mohinder talks about the end of Amin’s regime in Uganda, followed by a devastating “famine in Karamoja”. Again, Mohinder’s images from the famine were instrumental in galvanising external efforts to fight the hunger, just as he would do later when he covered the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. Then he goes to meet Robert Mugabe whilst he is negotiating for his country’s independence in Lancaster. Mohinder casts Mugabe as frosty and seemingly always angry with the British, and unwilling to give a coherent interview.

End to an era
Part III continues the story of Sir Mohinder Dhillon from 1986 to when he finished narrating his memoirs. Here he talks about being involved in shooting the series No Easy Walk, which were shown on American TV stations. Mohinder then goes to Vietnam, where he says he had been “only a couple of times, first in 1969 and then again in 1970.” But he lands in Hanoi in October 1988 to shoot the documentary called Vietnam: After the Fire, which recorded the aftermath of the American bombing of Vietnam. Afghanistan was the next major stopover for Mohinder before he literally decides to settle down – what he calls, “end to an era”.

The last sections of the book relate the death of his wife, Ambi; the life of his son Sam Dhillon; his travel back to India in “search of his roots”; getting knighted by the Queen of England; and reflecting on his life of over 8 decades. Mohinder is convinced that he has lived a good life. This very self-effacing man believes that he has achieved more than he could ever have imagined. There are very few people in this world who would have met pop icons, heads of states, kings, athletes; or been stuck in war zones; filmed for some of the greatest film producers; pursued personal interests; contributed to charity; and remained as charming as Mohinder.

My Camera, My Life is more than a memoir. This is a conversation that traces and relays in a most evocative language one man’s journey all over the world, in different epochs, in meetings with the high and mighty, among family and community, all in service of humanity. For a man who says that “just being born alive in a place like Babar Pur was a victory in itself”, to live to tell the story of his life is a triumph worth reading and retelling.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke

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