Chip Duncan and Mohammed Amin: Two generations of extraordinary African documentary photojournalists


Metharie Slum – Nairobi, Kenya

Chip Duncan “True Colour”

Click! The eye of the camera sees like a stealthy cat – the truth of abject starvation, misery, and resilient energy, and even the embodiment of blooming intelligence. The camera eye travels very well, bringing the earth’s far-flung corners into focus – something very evident in Inspiring Change: The Photography of Chip Duncan and Mohamed Amin at the Charles Allis Art Museum, through October 21.

Milwaukee-based photographer and videographer Chip Duncan – author of documentaries for NPR, HBO and Discovery, among other media outlets – has prowled 40 largely Third World countries exposing poverty and famine. Almost incongruously, his often-lovely images stand sharp but painterly in hue. Laden with vivid form, contrasting textures, and saturating color, his subjects radiate anguish, ardor and myriad beauty of humanity. He’s a pro’s pro cameraman.

Duncan’s great inspiration is fellow exhibitor, the late Mohamed Amin, a true profile in courage. The Kenyan’s largely black-and-white work lends gravitas and vitality to Duncan’s, by juxtaposition and association. Amin documented Ethiopia’s devastating 1984 famine, and he’s credited for spurring hunger-relief movements – Live Aid concerts, Band Aid and USA for Africa.

This photo of an elderly man, taken by Mohammed Amin during the Ethiopian famine, helped bring international attention and aid to the African crisis.

While covering Kenyan pro-democracy unrest, Amin endured 28 days of torture from the oppressive government.

In 1991, during the Ethiopian Civil War, he lost his left arm at the elbow in an ammunition dump explosion. He remained disabled professionally until a prosthetic arm helped him to handle cameras again. In 1996, hijackers took over an Ethiopian airlines flight, with Amin aboard. He attempted to rally passengers and confront the hijackers. But the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean and he died at age 53.

Amin wasn’t ignored at the time, but his work still merits further exposure — his journalism, artistry and the dramatic and small human truths it preserved.

”No news cameraman in recent history has had a greater impact than Mohamed Amin,” said Tony Hall, chief executive for British Broadcasting Corporation news, said at the time of Amin’s death. ”His pictures from Ethiopia 12 years ago moved the world.”

Former President George H. W. Bush said, ”Many millions are alive today because Mohamed Amin risked his life time and time again.’ 1

Mohammed Amin “Fishing.”

Three brief, recommended video films complement the photos – one of Duncan introducing his work, another of Amin documenting famine, and a third, of Amin’s son Salim, narrating his father’s powerful story. In the second video, we see a young boy’s fly-infested face and a child’s starved corpse. Yet Amin never exploits suffering for excessive effect, even when capturing beauty. In “Fishing,” shimmering clouds and the sinking sun silhouette two emaciated anglers standing precariously in a slender boat, hoping to spear some food.

Kabul, Afghanistan

Chip Duncan “Empowerment.”

In one of Duncan’s photos (“True Colour,” at top), a seemingly homeless man lies asleep below a ramshackle house festooned with kaleidoscopic graffiti, with a duck nearby, wondering about him. Duncan’s images seem more hopeful overall, exemplified by “Empowerment” – a young Afghani girl, bathed in a Vermeer-like glow, chews on a pencil, poised to write, and enable her nation.



A shorter version of this review was published in The Shepherd Express.Shepherd Express review

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