Pioneer Photographer | News and Documentary Cameraman | Iconic Film Maker | Dr. of Philosophy | Environmental Activist
Mohinder Dhillon is one of the most prolific and highly regarded photojournalists of his generation. His long career began in the autumnal years of the British Empire, and came to a close some fifty years later, as digital media were supplanting the world of film and videotape in which he so greatly excelled.
His huge body of work comprises coverage of world-shaping events, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, for the major broadcasters of the day. Some of his films have 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 many millions of dollars in famine relief.
Mohinder’s work was always about much more than capturing the image. Never a man to be seduced by the high life of some of his subjects, his sequences were characterised by an instinctive compassion for the underdog. He was – and remains – a passionate environmentalist, and this, together with the constant demand for his services, brought him into close contact with many of the ‘celebrity’ activists of the day: Wangari Maathai, Mother Theresa and Harry Belafonte among them.
All this is an unlikely accomplishment for a man of his modest background. Born in a small village in the Punjab, he grew up in a house with no electricity, running water or flush toilets. He followed his father 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, Urdu being the medium of what little formal education he had received.
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 1963. He went on to become the official cinematographer for Emperor Haile Selassie, travelling the world to cover his official engagements. Numerous assignments for the BBC and other British broadcasters put him on first name terms with many of Africa’s ‘big men’, including Jomo Kenyatta, Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyerere and Idi Amin.
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.
Of all the assignments that brought him international recognition, his coverage of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 was the most harrowing. 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.
With the late Mohamed Amin, Mohinder shot the documentary African Calvary, a thirty minute film that described the full horror of the famine as it unfolded. 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.’
In this capacity, Mohinder’s moral stance was always universal: not a man to any narrow political or ethnic interest, he and his camera always spoke for humanity as a whole. It was in recognition of this that, in 2005 Mohinder was made a “Knight Commander” by Emperor Haile Selassie’s grandson, His Highness the Crown Prince Zere Yacob Asfa Wossen Haile Selassie, the heir to the throne. It was an honour he received in recognition of his ‘outstanding contribution to humanity’ and for ‘having performed, through newsreel photography, the service of bringing to the attention of the world community critical issues affecting the welfare of the African continent.’
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.
One assignment that took him away from Africa was Vietnam: After the Fire, a damning indictment of the use by American forces of chemical defoliants during the Vietnam War. Deployed in an attempt to ‘flush out’ Viet Cong guerrillas from the jungle, Agent Orange and other toxins would remain in the food chain for dozens of years, giving rise to birth defects and deformities in humans and animals alike. The film was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 1989 BANFF International Film Festival in Canada, and named ‘Best Film Made for Television’ at 1990’s International Documentary Festival of New York.
Mohinder frequently risked his life to tell a story, earning the nickname ‘death wish Dhillon’ among the British troops in Aden, where he covered the Emergency in the mid sixties. Other brushes with death included coming within minutes of execution in the Congo, and falling several thousand feet from a helicopter over Kilimanjaro.
None of this 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.
In recent years, he has concentrated his efforts in writing his autobiography, which is as much a portrait of the times in which he lived as a history of his own life. Its publication in 2016 sparked international interest in his work, bringing to a new generation the story of an extraordinary man, who has lived through extraordinary times.