Msafiri’s Editor-at-large Jackson Biko chats to Amin Salim about the legacy of his father, the legendary Mohammed Amin, founder of Camerapix
Most articles written about Amin start with a mention of his office in Nairobi. And when you walk into his office you realise why: it’s not really an office, it’s a museum. It’s the paraphernalia from yesteryears’: antiques, framed photographs, sculptures, and paintings. And Amin himself, sits behind this monstrous desk that was owned by his late father, the legendary Mohammed Amin.
Salim runs Camerapix – the organisation that his father started in the 1960s; the agency that big news agencies from the West called to get exclusive images and videotapes of news from Africa. Under Salim’s stewardship, Camerapix has evolved from hard news to documentaries and corporate work, the most notable example being Mo and Me by Amin, which chronicles his father’s life. The documentary won 12 awards for Best Documentary in the US, Canada, India and Africa, including the Grand Jury Award at the New York International Film Festival.
Salim has also started African 24 Media, Africa’s first online video and photography agency. In addition there is the Mohamed Amin Foundation, which started in 1998 as an NGO to train young and talented African students in television and film.
This year the company celebrates its 50th anniversary with the republishing of Mo Amin’s biographies as e-books to symbolise the technological advancement that continues to uplift the continent.
Q&A with Amin Salim
Your father always said, “African stories should be told by Africans.” Has this come to pass?
Oh, I think it’s happening. The very premise of African 24 Media when we started it five and half years ago is based on that. We wanted to give a platform to Africans to tell their stories through African 24. However, I realised that the people who could fund this kind of a 24hr channel wanted control, you know, guys like Gaddafi, and I wasn’t happy with that. I figured that Africans didn’t need a propaganda channel to further their interest, so I decided that what we needed was a content agency that doesn’t need the kind of resources a channel like this would require. With an agency we could be the largest content aggregator in the continent.
Have you made significant strides with African 24?
It’s been a struggle the past three years but we have got African Journal back from Reuters, which is a programme my father started 20 years ago – the first pan-African magazine show looking at the positive aspects of Africa. Three years ago they offered it back to us. They didn’t want to handle the overhead production costs because they are an agency too, at the end of the day. This acquisition accelerated our model. We also got into a relationship with CCTV to produce Faces Of Africa, a pan-African magazine programme showcasing Africa in a positive light. The company has grown since. We now have 50 employees; two years ago we only had ten.
Do the Western news channels trust the kind of content that agencies like yours sell?
No, and that’s a sweeping statement I’m making. International broadcasters have always wanted their own people covering the news because it’s their brand. Four or five years ago most of those correspondents were from outside Africa. Al Jazeera is changing this by employing Africans. But overall the international media has always questioned our quality; can you produce pictures, sound and stories that are of the quality of their channel? And this is where my dad got angry and went ahead to prove that we could, by producing content that was far better quality than the ones from abroad, and on top of that he mostly had the access and context that foreigners didn’t.
But our quality is changing, it’s grown by leaps and bounds in the last five years and it can no longer be an excuse for the international channels.
How can this narrative be changed?
We have to create our own platforms. More of us are tuning into local networks on TV or mobile phones. And this will grow. Local content producers just have to take the lead to produce pan-African- targeted audiences that are relevant. The more we take charge of our own stories the less there will be a desire for foreign channels to come here. Their financial resources are also getting less and less and they will have to rely more on partners to gain access to content affordably.
You experience challenges, no doubt…
Yes, and training is one of them. We need to invest in training because we have so much natural talent. Also, there are journalists who don’t do this for money – they get paid peanuts. Our media outlets need to make journalism attractive, we need to look after our journalists well, invest in them more.
Whereas your father focused on hard news, you have branched out to do documentaries and corporate work. Did the business environment or a personality trait inform this shift?
My father was best known for his coverage for hard news. We have 10,000 hours of footage and four million still photographs, but only 10% is news, the rest isn’t. He produced over 45 coffee table books on African culture and people because that was the
real Africa, in his mind.
He also did documentaries on Ethiopia. I inherited his passion for beauty. I began by covering the Rwanda genocide, and the Somali and the Sudan wars, but eventually got tired of doing those kinds of story. I also changed focus for financial reasons. During his day there weren’t many people doing what he was doing – all the bureaux came to him for work and there was a lot of work. But in my time there was less and less of that kind of work available for us. We had to keep the business going.
Is digital age the death knell of photography?
That’s a very difficult question. The digital camera and the phones have just allowed everyone to be a photographer. Photography has certainly reached a different level. Hard news is now being covered by guys on the ground. News breaks on Twitter faster. Things change. All this is not bad or good; we just have to adapt. But look, the professional outfits don’t commission someone with an iPhone to do a job. Amateurs with iPhones don’t take iconic images: they are taken by professionals.
What’s the one story about your dad that you cherish? Something you think of tenderly?
Oh, God, he wasn’t a very tender person. But when he lost his arm and he still insisted on driving his Peugeot 504. He wouldn’t let me drive, so he would let go of the steering wheel to change the gears, all the while he dictated his letters or read them. It was the scariest experience, driving to work with him.
What’s next for you and your companies?
We have to digitise our content. It’s a massive, time-consuming and expensive process. Overall we just need to solidify our position as content aggregators in Africa. We want to produce more shows, documentaries, and nurture more talent.