By: Vivek Shukla
That the passing away of Sir Mohinder Dhillon did not get any mention in Indian media speaks volumes about it’s sheer apathy for Indian diaspora outside America or Europe. Unquestionably,one of the most prolific and highly regarded photojournalists of his generation, he had first name terms with many of Africa’s ‘big men’, including Jomo Kenyatta, Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyerere and Idi Amin.
Massive body of work comprises coverage of world-shaping events, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, for the major broadcasters.
Mohinder’s work had a powerful effect on public consciousness around the world, not least his coverage of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s, which was instrumental in raising millions of dollars in famine relief.
Born in a Sikh family in a village called Baburpur in Jalandhar in 1931, he once said, “ Looking back over the years, I wonder how, as a simple village boy from Punjab who never even finished school, did I end up in Africa, dodging bullets to make a living from shooting hundreds of kilometres of film in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.”
He followed his father (Tek Singh) to Kenya, landing in Mombasa in 1947 at the age of 16. With no certificates, his prospects were further constrained by lack of fluency in English. He got an admission there in Mombassa. Despite facing lots of difficulties, he managed to clear his school. And a new journey as a photo journalist begun.He got his first break when he was offered work as a darkroom assistant in Nairobi at Halley Studio, graduating to stills photography in 1952, and then film. He co-founded Africapix with Ivor Davis in 1961 who hailed from Fleet Street, London.
Among the first major events that he covered was the Kenyan struggle for Independence, from the start of the Mau Mau insurgency in the Kenyan forests to the lowering of the British flag in Kenya in 1963.
Mohinder never received any formal training in cinematography. In any case, the skills he needed were as much about self-preservation as the ability to operate a camera. In this capacity, he became something of a mentor for many news reporters from Europe, who went on to pursue illustrious careers after Mohinder himself had retired.
The coverage of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 was the hall mark of his career. The demand for his images from different news agencies was insatiable, and he ended up staying thirteen months, with just one weekend to see his family back in Nairobi. Day after day, he filmed babies and infants dying in front of him every few minutes. The wailing of parents had a traumatic effect on his psyche – every night, he would stay awake re-living what he had witnessed. In all, some six million people were affected.
This film, broadcast in April 1985, was one of the principal triggers for a global famine relief effort, in which tens of millions of dollars were raised to alleviate the suffering. Giant transport planes from different air forces of the world, headed for Ethiopia in such large numbers that there was no space left for them to park. For a while, the small dusty airstrips in places like Makele became as busy as Heathrow. Mother Teresa, who appeared on camera, came up with the expression that inspired the title African Calvary. Holding Mohinder’s hand in her own, she said to him: ‘My son, God has specially chosen you to shoot this film.’
Mohinder’s passion for the environment also found an outlet through his lens. Much of his work has dealt with wildlife conservation and the preservation of Kenya’s forest cover, a concern that brought him into close contact with Wangari Maathai, the internationally renowned conservationist who became the first African woman to win a Nobel prize. And he was among the few African photo journalists to cover the Vietnam War.
Mohinder frequently risked his life to tell a story, earning the nickname ‘death wish Dhillon’. That never diminished his enthusiasm. Where his contemporaries in the media tended to ease up in late middle age, moving on to desk jobs, Mohinder retained his taste for work in the field, slowing down only when the decline in his physical stamina forced him to do so.
It is pity that such a great personality was never invited and honoured during Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD). Yet he had no bitter feeling for the county of his birth. Recalls Avtar Singh Sohal ‘Tari’, who captained Kenya hockey side in four Olympic games and a friend of Dhiliion,“ He always called India as Gurughar. His heart used to beat for India even though he was an icon of Africa.”
Our lives in Baburpur –
I spent my early childhood in much the same way as my father. We never travelled outside our district in Punjab. There were no road or rail connections nearby. The Television was yet to be invented and I did not even know that radio existed. I first saw a camera when we all travelled to Ludhiana in 1947 to have our passport pictures taken. The camera was one of those contraptions with a black shroud underneath which the photographer’s head would momentarily disappear. There were no newspapers or magazines from which to learn about the world outside Babarpur. While in India, I had never heard of Mahatma Gandhi. Not until 1948, when I was in Kenya, I hear about Gandhi for the first time – and that was only because he had just been assassinated.
Amarjeet Kaur Sandhu, known throughout her life as Ambi , was born in Kisumu, on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, on September 20, 1940. She was educated at Kisumu Girls School, although, like me, she did not progress beyond ‘O’
Mohinder Dhillon (Founder and CEO of Africapix Media Ltd.) was the first photo and TV journalist to capture the plight of Iranian Kurds behind Khomeini’s lines. His first pictures shocked the world generating a lot for sympathy of Kurdish sufferance. He was knighted by the Order of Saint Mary of Zion during a ceremony at the Royal Artillery Headquarters in Woolwich, U.K. on November 12th 2005. “The honors were conferred upon those who had made significant contribution to the society.