Amin Swimming, by Elly Rwakoma (part 1)

Recognize Idi Amin in the photo above? Ever since starting HIPUganda I have my radar up for images related to- and made in Uganda. So when walking into an exhibition in the National Museum in Monrovia (Liberia) showing photographs that leap in big steps through African history, I was of course looking out for the Ugandan part. The country was represented by its two famous presidents Obote and Amin.

The Encounter in Monrovia wasn’t the first time I saw this image. A couple of years ago I found it in a documentary about the life of Mohamed Amin. This Photojournalist shared not only his last name with the former president, but also his legendary status. The story goes that Mohamed called the presidential office and was connected instantly because the secretary thought she was speaking to a relative. Amin, Mohamed that is, was responsible for bringing the Ethiopian famine in 1984 to the attention of the world, confirming his status as an outstanding journalist. He lost an arm while on the job, but continued to do what he considered necessary.

The photograph was described to me by former presidential photographer Elly Rwakoma, who you’ll hear more about in future posts. Elly’s life changed making this image. We think. Initially, in the early 70s he got along fine with Idi Amin, who he knew as a social, friendly army man from Jinja. After the killings started and it became clear that Amin’s rule was not necessarily good news, Elly showed some of the negatives he made to Mohamed Amin, who by then could no longer enter Uganda to add images to what he had already shot. Mohamed said he would choose which negative(s) he would like to use in his press agency and gave Elly some money for it. Elly recognizes this photograph as The One that was published by Newsweek with the caption ‘is Amin swimming or sinking’. Amin’s men knew he made the photograph and came after him. What follows reads like a movie script, but isn’t (yet). The soldiers who were ordered to arrest Elly didn’t actually know him. When they entered the studio he was in shorts and t-shirt and didn’t look like the photographer they expected to find. When they said who they were looking for, he told them that Mr. Rwakoma had just gone to the bank. When then soldiers left, Elly jumped in his car and drove to Kenya, where he spent Amin’s last months as a president in exile. He would return May 1979. The studio had been ransacked. A large part of his work had been lost. But a group portrait testifies to the happy return.

Mohamed Amina’s son Salim confirmed that the negative of this photograph is in his dad’s collection. He said that he has always been under the impression that the image was made by his dad and invited me to come over to do some research. (To be continued!)

Elly Rwakoma traveled quite a bit in his life. He studied in the US, visited Russia and spent some time in Israel. But he was never anywhere close to Monrovia. Nevertheless the caption to the print in the National Museum places Amin, and therefore Elly just there. It was not too hard to find out where this came from. A creative curator put the image and the story about Amin, carrying a gun when going for a swim at the Ducor Hotel in Monrovia, together. An image that many people will recognize as the former ‘Last King of Scotland’, a compelling story that took place not more than a mile away from where the museum is located. What a nice addition to the exhibition!

Which shows how careful we need to be thinking we know what we see when it comes to a photograph.

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