Sir Mohinder is a legend, he was present and covered momentous historical events in Kenya and Africa
On 9th of March 2020, Kenya woke up to the sad news of the sudden departure, in full flight, of the legendary photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, Sir Mohinder Dhillon. I learned of Sir Mohinder’s passing through that telephone call that one wishes did not come; it was Sir Mohinder’s longtime friend and colleague, the ex-BBC journalist and today the Managing Director of Inca Africa, the documentary making company, Richard Vaughan, who called to break the sad news. In spite of our age difference and cultural backgrounds, Sir Mohinder was a great friend and mentor. I spent many hours with him. I learned a lot from him. He shared his contacts and friends.
Put differently, Sir Mohinder Dhillon, will remain a great inspiration to generations of journalists. It was through Sir Mohinder that I was able to interview the world-renowned palaeontologist and conservationist Dr Richard Leakey for KBC English Service. It was through him again, that I was able to track down and interview ex-colonial officer Ralph Palmer who lives a quiet life in Nairobi writing books.
Sir Mohinder is a legend in the truest sense of the term. He was present and covered momentous historical events in Kenya and Africa, especially, and in other parts of the world as they unfolded. Through still photos and motion pictures, Sir Mohinder recorded the struggle for independence, independence, and after. It is no wonder that in his rich body of photography, Sir Mohinder has just almost every photo of the main political actor, and event, from the continent.
And he was ingenious; in 1959 for example, when Jomo Kenyatta was still in detention, but the British were beginning to loosen up, Sir Mohinder smuggled his camera into prison through Masinde Muliro and Ronald Ngala, the two nationalists who had been granted permission to visit him, and bingo, there we had some of the rarest of photographs of Jomo Kenyatta in a prison house in Lokitaung!
I first met Sir Mohinder at a book event. He had long retired from active journalism. He lived a quiet but busy life in Nairobi where he constantly received streams of guests from around the world who came to consult with him.
Some were old friends and colleagues with whom he had worked through the decades. Sir Mohinder was then in the process of putting together his memoir, My Camera, My Life, which would later be published in 2016 to much delight and international acclaim. Sir Mohinder’s memoir is one of the most evocative you will encounter. The title itself, My Camera, My Life, belies the historical significance of this book. “Some people think I am ancient,” he would tell me in an interview because his collection of photos is a gem, and they go back many years!
Born in 1931 in Punjab Province in India, Sir Mohinder arrived in Kenya in 1947 with his family to settle for a new life with his father who was then an employee of the East African Railways. In Punjab, the language of instruction in school had been Urdu, but when the family moved to Kenya, then a British colony, the children were now expected to learn English. Sir Mohinder was enrolled at Jamhuri High School. “I knew I would be leaving school without even the most basic educational qualifications.
Looking around, I felt disconsolate and useless,” Sir Mohinder writes in his memoir. Sir Mohinder left school without a certificate. He writes in his memoir, “In a simple gesture, my father gave me a basic second-hand Box Brownie camera. Neither he nor I knew it at the time, but this simple gift marked the beginning of a 60-year-long career in photography.” Sir Mohinder developed a keen interest in photography and taught himself by reading anything he came by on the subject.
He set up a darkroom at home and started producing miniature photos. His luck came when he was offered an opportunity at Halle studio which was owned by a Jewish lady called Edith Haller: “I was determined to show I was both capable and eager to learn.” His first assignment as a professional photographer was to cover a horse race for the East African Standard, then Kenya’s only daily newspaper. The Standard had a contract with Halle studio to take photos for them, especially in social events. Sir Mohinder took beautiful photos, and thus began a long and distinguished career in photojournalism.
But it was the arrival in Nairobi in 1958, of British Fleet-Street trained journalist Ivor Davis that would have a lasting impact on Sir Mohinder’s career. Ivor came to work for the Standard newspaper. It was Ivor who introduced Sir Mohinder to the cut-and-thrust of the global media. In 1960, Ivor quit Standard and in 1961 he teamed up with his friend to establish the iconic news agency, Africapix: “Television, then still in its infancy as a news medium, was expanding fast too, creating a new global market for film footage, not least from Africa.”
Sir Mohinder covered some of the most significant and historic events in modern history. He witnessed the wind of change sweep hitherto ordinary men into office as presidents of newly independent African states. Did these politicians live to the expectations of the masses? Sir Mohinder’s camera is trained on Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Milton Obote, Siad Barre, Idi Amin, Gaafer Numeiri, Muammar Gaddafi, and Robert Mugabe. He was official photographer and filmmaker of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and Liberian President William Tubman.
Sir Mohinder had several brushes with death some of which he recounts in his memoir. In 1964, Sir Mohinder came very close to being executed in the Congo during the Stanleyville hostage-taking crisis. Sir Mohinder had flown to Congo during the civil war with AP reporter Andrew Borovic. Their brief was to cover the American-sponsored rescue mission dubbed, ‘Operation Dragon Rouge.’
While in Congo, he was arrested by government soldiers whom he had filmed executing people suspected to be sympathisers of Simba Rebels, the disillusioned supporters of the slain Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Sir Mohinder was held briefly then released. However, at the airport, he was arrested again because his passport had the incriminating visa of Albertville, a rebel-controlled region which he had visited earlier with two other reporters, Dennis Neeld of AP and Ian Colvin of Daily Telegraph.
Sir Mohinder was taken to the firing squad where there were several people. “Now there were only eight of us left,” he writes. At that point, somebody kicked him gently and shouted, “Mohinder, what are you doing here!” It was Eric Vincent, ITN TV photojournalist who was with his Sound Engineer Jon Lane and war correspondent Sandy Gall. He would learn later that Sandy Gall, an old friend of his knew the notorious Irish mercenary Mike Hoare then very influential in Congolese army circles, and who was helping the quisling Moise Tshombe to reverse the gains of the Simba Rebels. When Sandy Gall heard of Sir Mohinder’s arrest, he reached out to Hoare and persuaded him to intervene with the Congolese army and their Belgian paratroopers. Needless to say, it was the ITN team who saved Sir Mohinder’s life. Had they not arrived at that very moment, he would have been executed.
In 1967, Sir Mohinder flew to Yemen to cover the civil war there. It was here, that the British soldiers, awed by his physical courage, nicknamed him, “Death-Wish-Dillon,” because while the soldiers from both sides were dodging bullets, Sir Mohinder was in the streets taking photos. Sir Mohinder was not only a photographer for news and currents affairs programmes: “I made my name in documentary filmmaking, that’s where my fame came, because news after 24 hours is forgotten, but if you make a good documentary, it will last forever,” the legendary TV journalist would say. Among Sir Mohinder’s documentary films are: African Calvary, Vietnam After the Fire, Elephant Run, African Runners, The Tulip Elephants, No Easy Walk, We are The Children, Khomeini’s Other War, and The Shifta War.
Sir Mohinder was the first photojournalist to film the Ethiopian famine in 1983. However, it was not until 1984, a year later, when he again delivered early footages of the raging famine with the commentary of BBC reporter Michael Buerk, that world was stirred to take notice. British journalist Bob Smith has observed that Sir Mohinder, “delivered first-class footage” of the famine. Smith goes on to say that Sir Mohinder’s “film had at last begun to stir international interest.”
When Sir Mohinder delivered those extraordinarily arresting but disturbing footages of the Ethiopian famine in 1984, Mohamed Amin, the award-winning Kenyan journalist who is credited with drawing world attention to the famine, was in fact away filming American TV series, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and promoting his publications at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. History is a fact, as Bob Smith is Mohamed Amin’s biographer.
Perhaps it was because of Sir Mohinder’s demeanour, “a modest man by nature,” as Richard Vaughan has observed, that he was passed as others scrambled for glory. Richard says that Sir Mohinder, “Never allowed his ego to get in the way of the story. He never craved the limelight, and he certainly did not enjoy being flattered!” Richard who worked with Sir Mohinder for three decades says that “In the field, Sir Mohinder never wanted to become bigger than the story itself or to make himself a hero out of the circumstances in which he was working.
Sir Mohinder and his camera were always the invisible vessels through which the story passed.” Indeed, Jon Snow of ITN TV writes in his autobiography, Shooting History: A Personal Journey, that Sir Mohinder, “was a brilliant but understated cameraman.” Snow says that “You cannot write about Mohinder without first mentioning his fundamental humanity; his loyalty, steadfastness and loveliness. Put simply, Mohinder was a rock. In the field, he was my mentor, somebody without whom I might never have progressed in television news.”
Fare thee well the gentle giant of photojournalism.
Khainga O’Okwemba is the presenter and producer of The Books Café on KBC English Service.