A brilliant but flawed man

Journalists are so spoilt. Just as orthodontists get the best dental care and interior decorators the most stylish flats, they enjoy the best coverage. When they are kidnapped, their fate is breathlessly tracked in the media, and when they die, they are mourned as fallen heroes. Self-appointed arbiters of the fate of nations, they tend to believe they matter a great deal.

The sanctification of the press by the press has been going on ever since the first scoop, but television's arrival lent it a new intensity. In Africa, no journalist enjoyed more mythical status than Mo Amin, the Kenyan-Asian photographer and cameraman whose searing footage of the 1984 Ethiopian famine prompted Bob Geldof to launch Band Aid.

Ten years after his death, a documentary by his son, Mo and Me, has been quietly picking up awards. Rightly so, for Salim Amin resists the temptation to eulogise. Instead, he depicts his father as he really was and, in the process, he exposes the huge gap between the extraordinary roles individuals can play when history touches them on the shoulder and their own flawed, unappetising characters.

I used to pass Mo Amin, whose company Camerapix was on the same floor as my former employers in East Africa, in the corridor. By that stage he had lost his arm, ripped apart when he got too close to an exploding ammunitions dump in Addis Ababa. Unsmiling, grim-faced, he seemed to transmit an invisible "Keep Off" signal, and the stories I'd heard about how he treated his African staff never tempted me to penetrate the force field.

But mine was a minority reaction. Older members of the Africa hack pack would chuckle, shake their heads and go into anecdote mode when Mo's name came up. They marvelled at his ruthlessness, the energy poured into screwing his rivals, his legendary tightness with money, his creative accounting. This was a very male form of esteem, celebrating the qualities most of us would regard as defining, in personal terms at least, a first-class shit.

Sure enough, Salim paints a picture of a cold, emotionally unreachable workaholic, a man who took his mistress rather than his wife to his MBE ceremony at Buckingham Palace, who communicated with his family and staff via memo, in triplicate. If one of his instructions was challenged, he could fish out the file and trace the day, week and month the order was first issued.

He'd begun in Tanzania, abandoning school in his teens to plunge into photography. It is perhaps the documentary's biggest weakness that it never examines how it was that the man who did more than any other to record the continent's recent history was not black but brown. A freelancer, he juggled so many jobs he became known as "six-camera Mo". There was little play and lots of work - hours after marrying his model wife, he was out on a shoot.

After being detained and tortured in Zanzi-bar he moved to Nairobi, where he snapped the final moments of the assassinated Tom Mboya. He also exploited the coincidence of their names to get cozy with Idi Amin, Uganda's psychopathic dictator. But the Ethiopian story, which prompted the international community's big gest peace-time mobilisation of the century, made him.

I have always been puzzled by the adulation heaped upon him for this work. Presented with a vast plain on which thousands of emaciated Ethiopians had gathered to die, only an incompetent cameraman could have failed to produce heart-rending footage. And while the media team that reached Khorem did well to bludgeon their way through the Marxist officialdom, the Ethiopian government had been warning of a crisis for months - this famine was no surprise.

Even here Salim avoids simplification. This, he tells us, was the first time that he had seen his father emotionally involved in a story. Yet he also interviews his mother, who remembers how Mo's ambition, always vaulting, seemed to soar out of control in the aftermath of Band and Live Aid. Did he really care? Or had the greatest self-promoter in African journalism simply recognised that he had struck the mother lode?

Mo died when his Ethiopian Airlines flight, held up by possibly the silliest hijackers in history - they wanted to fly to Australia, but chose a plane which only had enough fuel to go a fraction of the distance - crashed into the Indian Ocean. Survivors recalled him trying to organise a passengers' revolt, without success. That was in pre-9/11 days, when people still believed in the possibility of negotiated outcomes.

When Salim, who comes across as a far more rounded and sympathetic character than his father, confesses in the film that he has a recurring nightmare of his dad walking in and screaming, "What the fuck have you done to my office? Get out of my chair and get out from behind my desk," you know the son is spot on. This is indeed exactly how a resurrected Mo would react.

You're left marvelling that such a deeply unpleasant character should have done so much good, puzzling over the intriguing fact that the work men produce can so often be better than they are themselves.

"Mo and Me", premièred in London this week, is to be shown on al-Jazeera's English-language channel this autumn. It won Best Documentary at the 2006 Los Angeles International Film and Video Festival

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: Better off without us?