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Passion runs through blood: Salim Amin’s past and present accounts

Passion runs through blood: Salim Amin’s past and present accounts

Salim Amin is the Chairperson of Camerapix and head of the Mohamed Amin Foundation, named after his famous father - Mohamed Amin. Mohamed Amin is the photographer and cameraman whose images of the 1984 famine victims in Ethiopia stirred world reaction and gathered prominent artists including Bob Geldof to perform a beneficiary concert called Live aid. He was among more than 125 people killed in the crash of a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight at Comoros islands 24 years ago. He is known for his frequent travels to Africa and the mesmerizing pictures he takes of the continent.

Mo also helped to produce the Ethiopian Airlines in-flight magazine ‘Selamta’. Salim sat down with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew and shared his thoughts on his father’s legacy, his own career, helping graduate African journalists, and more.

The Reporter: Like your father, the famous Mohamed Amin, you have been a photographer associated with some of the most iconic photos of the continent. Tell me about yourself.                   

Salim Amin:I have been in the media business since I was a child. I was given a camera by my father when I was around seven years old and I began photographing the East African Safari Rally when I was nine years old. I was first published when I was 10 and there was no going back when I saw that picture in a magazine with my byline! Ironically, my father never wanted me to get into this profession. He always told me to get a “real job” as he said this was too dangerous, and takes too much time away from the family. But it was all I ever wanted to do with my life. So, I went to College in Canada to study Journalism and came back to Kenya to work with him.

I returned home from College in the summer of 1992. In December 1992,“Operation Restore Hope” started in Somalia where US troops arrived in the country to help with the distribution of food to the people. Somalia, and Mogadishu in particular, was controlled by warlords, with the most notorious being Mohamed Farah Aideed. There was a massive shortage of food and it was very difficult getting it to the people who were starving. The Marines came and began distribution, but this very quickly deteriorated into a war. Our teams were in and out of Somalia for over two years and we lost many colleagues in that conflict. That was my first taste of covering frontline news.

Can you please walk me through the legacies of your father who is still remembered within the continent but particularly in Ethiopia? Could you also tell me about Camerapix?

In April 1994, Camerapix had the first news teams into Rwanda covering the genocide. That was a very, very difficult story to cover. It scarred all of us permanently and, for me in particular, it was a time when I stopped wanting to cover hard news. This was something my father could not understand and was the source of much argument between us.

Fortunately, he was just starting a weekly African Magazine Show called Africa Journal and I found that these were the kind of stories I enjoyed telling! I was part of the first production team that started Africa Journal and it has become the longest-running show on the African Continent. It is something we are very proud to have been a part of and I believe changed the perception of Africa, both within the Continent and outside.

When my father passed away in 1996, I had to take over the company and learn everything about it. I knew the TV production side but had little knowledge about the Publishing Company, or the studio photography side and I had to learn in the process. I was 26 years old then. Fortunately, my father had very good partners in Duncan Willetts and RukhsanaHaq and they kept things going as I continued to learn. I made many mistakes, and I still do! I am always learning about the business, even today.

What were the highlights of your fathers’ career within the continent?

My father’s career is a pretty well-known story. He covered most of the big events of the 20th Century in Africa for broadcasters and newspapers around the world. He published dozens of books showcasing the Continent’s beauty and people and culture. His life was very linked to Ethiopia … from the last years of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, through the dark days of the Derg regime under Mengistu Hailemariam, into the famine of 1984, the revolution and overthrow of Mengistu in 1991 and the early years of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s leadership. 

The famine made him the most famous cameraman in the world and changed the course of history in both Ethiopia and the Continent; the fall of Mengistu cost him his left arm in the ammunition dump explosion in Addis Ababa on June 4, 1991; and he eventually lost his life aboard the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane in 1996, ironically after attending a board meeting of Selamta magazine!

Tell me more about his association with Ethiopia and Ethiopians?

So, his life was very linked to Ethiopia; therefore, the country and people had a very special place in his heart. He published half a dozen books showing the magnificent culture, people and history of Ethiopia, as a way of balancing the image of the country to the rest of the world. He did not want Ethiopia to be known as a country of famine. He rather wanted the country to be seen as an amazing place it was with an unparalleled history.

Keeping his legacy alive has been easy, as it is such a great legacy. He left behind an incredible body of work – close to 3 million images and almost 8,000 hours of video. The challenge has been on how to preserve the content, to digitize everything, and to make sure people can access it, so as to be able to learn more about the history of this Continent.

What are some of the challenges that you have faced in an endeavor continuing the legacy of your father?

The biggest challenge I faced was convincing people that Camerapix could still deliver on jobs. Everyone assumed the Company died with my father, so we really had to work extra hard in the first few years. After his passing, to show clients we could deliver the same standards he had done, whether it was on news coverage, documentaries, books, or magazines. As time went by, we continued to build on the work he had done. Technology changed and we had to adapt. Social media came along and we had to adapt again, and that is what I love about this industry. There is always new challenges!

I found my niche in documentaries and long-form features, in training with the Mohamed Amin Foundation, then hosting my own Talk Show called The Scoop which reached millions of people every week, and now in the archives and bringing my father’s work back to life.

I heard that his foundation has really helped many aspiring journalists across the continent, what is your say about this?

The Mohamed Amin Foundation has graduated over 450 journalists over the last 20 years and this has been a huge way of preserving his legacy as they are the best Ambassadors of his name.

The work we are now doing on the archives will hopefully go a very long way to preserve his legacy. We are digitizing and looking to create audio-visual modules to distribute to primary and secondary schools around the Continent, allowing young students to learn more about their history visually.

There was a time you and your father helped produce Selamta, Ethiopian Airlines’ in-flight magazine and what is your current involvement in the production of the magazine?

My father was one of the founders of Selamta Magazine and Camerapix produced the magazine for the best part of 35 years. It was a passion project for him as it was very hard to generate revenue from the magazine. We continued it for a few years after his death, but then I guess the airline wanted to explore other options and maybe wanted a new look that we were unable to provide. All good things must come to an end.

You have been coming to Ethiopia for a while now. What has changed over the years?

Ethiopia is unrecognizable since my first visit. Addis Ababa has grown into this massive metropolis, skyscrapers everywhere, hotels, restaurants, bars, fast food joints, shops, markets. 35 years ago, there were very, very few of these. I love coming to Addis and Ethiopia. I have been taking a trip up North every year, taking a group of foreigners to retrace my father’s journey from Mekelle, driving through Korem and showing them the progress on the plains of Korem that once housed hundreds of thousands of starving people and mass graves, to Lalibela. It is one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling trips I make each year.

It's wonderful to see how much things have changed, but I also miss the charm of Addis from a few years ago, but this is progress and I hope there will continue to be proper planning as the city expands.