On July 12, 1993, Dan Eldon – artist, world traveler, filmmaker, graphic designer, and the youngest photojournalist ever to have worked for Reuters – was beaten to death in Somalia while on assignment at the scene of a bombing. He was only 22 years old. A week later, a cermony was held in the Ngong hills to commemorate Eldon’s life, and his ashes were scattered to the wind.
Eldon died one of the most prominent photojournalists of the famine and civil unrest in Somalia. And he left behind a remarkable body of work, including his 17 journals, which meld drawings, paintings, and mixed media images. A international traveling exhibit of Eldon’s photographs and journals – titled "Dan Eldon: Images of War, Celebrations of Peace" – is on view at the Marguerite & James Hutchins Gallery, Gruss Center of Visual Arts, at the Lawrenceville School, through Wednesday, December 14.
On Tuesday, December 6, at 7 p.m., in Memorial Hall at the Lawrenceville School, Eldon’s mother, Kathy Eldon, will introduce the screening of "Dying to Tell the Story," a two-hour Emmy-nominated documentary on war correspondents, hosted and produced by Eldon’s sister, Amy. The gallery will be open from 6 to 7 p.m. that evening.
In a phone interview from her home in southern California, Amy says that she and Dan were born in London. Their father is British; their mother American. In connection with their father’s work as the head of the east Africa division of a European computer company, the family moved to Nairobi, Kenya, in 1977, when Amy was three and Dan seven. Their mother, an Iowa native, was a freelance journalist at the time, writing for the African newspaper, The Nation, and she would take Dan along on her assignments. He was given a camera at a very young age and began taking pictures on these excursions with his mother, a habit that would ignite his passion for photography.
The Eldons had a busy household and dinner guests would include a constant stream of interesting visitors – opera singers, filmmakers, reporters, and politicians. By the time he was in high school, Dan had begun to make his collage journals, something he started as an assignment for an anthropology class. The journals melded his interests in travel, photography, and art. Dan went to college, Amy says, "taking classes here and there, taking the classes he would need, then he would leave, returning to Kenya." As a high school senior, Dan told the guidance counselor that he was planning to do an internship at a magazine for a few months and then travel through southern Africa. "Oh, you’re taking a year off," the counselor said. "No," Dan replied. "I’m taking a year on."
In 1988 he moved to New York to become an intern at Mademoiselle magazine but disliked New York and returned to Africa to live with his father. He bought an old Land Rover that he nicknamed Deziree. His first real safari was a two and a half month venture through South Africa in the last days of apartheid.
Amy says the time surrounding her brother’s death was "a blur." When I asked her when something had happened, at what age something had occurred, it is difficult for her to answer. She has to add or subtract from her own birth date. The sudden death of a sibling is hard enough to deal with, let alone the death of a sibling trying to diffuse, through public awareness, a volatile political situation. One of Dan’s talents, says Amy, was his "ability to see beauty and horror exist side by side."
In the exhibit at the Lawrenceville School, which includes more than a dozen of Eldon’s photographs for Reuters, there are juxtaposed images of young marine females in bikinis, toting rifles, next to young, gaunt, starving Somalian children. The dichotomy displayed is tremendous. Here are young marine women, with rifles on their backs, smilingly coyly at each other, while behind them, unseen to most, are four children lying on blankets, near death for lack of food. As a native – Eldon always considered Africa his home, visiting more than 40 countries in 22 years – this is what Eldon saw daily. He took care to befriend himself to locals and to try to spread the word of injustice through his work. By spring, 1993, his photographs were picked up by many of the most influential of media at the time, including Time, Newsweek, Life, and he became a stringer for Reuters. According to Eldon’s website, www.daneldon.com, at that time, as many as 1,000 people a day were starving to death in Somalia. Eldon saw that his work as a photographer could have a huge impact; few journalists were covering the story at the time and humanitarian relief was desperately needed.
In his journals, he wrote: "There is little difference between exploring and being lost," and "Look for solutions, not problems." Amy says: "Dan had a higher objective when taking the pictures." A visitor to the exhibit can see this in the shot of an African woman with a coy smile, holding a rifle. The shot is close-up; she wears a yellow and black headdress, eyes half-closed – piercing, challenging, an AK-47 slung over her shoulder, yet, minus this detail, she could be a Vogue model.
During this time, Amy says, "Dan felt he had made it, making people care through his photographs." He photographed the starving. He photographed the U.S. military "high-fiving" young African youth. He photographed the U.S. military patrolling a desolate, looted museum. He became one of the most successful photographers of this period in history, his photographs enlightening others to an otherwise hidden strife.
"Dan’s life reminds us of possibilities we may have forgotten in our lives," Amy says. "Time is fleeting, make the most of it. As Dan once said, ‘If you want to get something done, roll up your sleeves and do it.’ He’s not a hero, he’s one of us. Because of his youth he thought he could change things."
Despite the horrors that fell in his path, Dan strove for a typical youthful, outlook on life. He wrote, "It is therapeutic to apply a well-toned, beautiful naked body onto one’s own flesh at least twice a day in tropical or non-tropical climes." Yet, he also wrote that "the safari as a way of life" was to "explore the unknown and the familiar, distinct and near, and to record in detail with the eyes of a child, any beauty (of the flesh or otherwise), horrors, irony, traces of utopia or hell. Select your team with care, but when in doubt, take on some new crew and give them a chance. But avoid at all costs fluctuations of sincerity with your best people."
Sometimes, however, having the best people and the best intentions were not enough. Having seen so much horror, so much starvation in Somalia, Dan became depressed. As a visitor can see in some pages of his journals, though rarely in his photographs, sometimes "there are things too horrible to photograph."
At one point it seemed that he could laugh at the horror. There is a journal entry with a dead man, at the head of whom there is another man’s figure, outlined as if in a Keith Haring illustration, arms up-stretched, "happy lines" around the face. Yet, at the base of this man is another figure, prone, unmoving. It’s no longer funny. He is reveling in death. He is celebrating the loss of another.
"In Dan’s photos he is always seeking the light; sometimes you just have to look little harder," says Amy, who started work on her documentary, "Dying to Tell the Story," while still in school. She started her college studies at Lafayette and finished at Boston University in 1997 with a degree in communications/broadcasting. She says that when she started the documentary, she did not know what she was getting into, and was "tormented by man, humanity, and racism." The documentary was produced for Turner Broadcasting and in addition to the Emmy nomination, received nominations from the Directors Guild of America and Independent Spirit.
Today Amy is executive director of the Global Tribe Network (www.globaltribenet.org). The organization is dedicated to connecting youth around the world with meaningful service projects and inspire young people to volunteer and become "social entrepreneurs." Amy lives in Los Angeles and has one foster brother, Peter Lekarian, who lives in Kenya. Her parents divorced when she was 13 and Dan was 17, just when he began travelling to Somalia. Amy notes that Dan’s journals became darker during this time. Her father and her stepmother still live in Kenya; Amy and her boyfriend just returned from one of their regular visits there.
In addition to the documentary, "Dying to Tell the Story," she has produced programming for CNN and PBS, and is the co-author of three books, including "Soul Catcher: A Journal to Help You Become Who You Really Are" (Chronicle Books, 1999), co-authored with her mother, and "Angel Catcher for Kids: A Journal to Help You Remember the Person Who Died (Chronicle, 2002).
Kathy Eldon, a graduate of Wellesley College, now lives in Los Angeles and is a journalist/ producer. Her company, Creative Visions, is, according to its website, www.creativevisions.org, "a media organization that seeks to enable individuals to think globally and to act locally, or not so locally, to unite in making positive change for the planet and her people." Kathy served as executive producer of "Dying to Tell the Story." She is currently traveling around the world with her boyfriend.
There are two books about Dan Eldon, "The Journey Is the Destination" (Chronicle, 1997), a compilation of excerpts from his collage journals, edited by Kathy Eldon, and "Dan Eldon: The Art of Life" (Chronicle, 2001) by Jennifer New. An independent motion picture about Dan, being produced by Kathy Eldon, is in the works.
In remarks made to the Overseas Press Club in 1994, the year after her son’s death, Kathy Eldon said: "War affects people. It affects those of us who must watch television and read the paper, and it also affects those among you who must seek out the news and relay it to us. Dan had to shut down his heart to do his job. We all do. The pain would be too great. We live in a tormented, fragmented world. We have no Gandhi, no Churchill to show us the way home. We are sorely in need of inspiration.
"I ask you tonight to reconnect your hearts and your heads to inspire, to stir, to stimulate, to allow the divine spark through your writing, your reporting, your broadcasting, your publishing…Together, let us transform the intense pain of loss into a new sense of commitment to the raising of the consciousness of every person on this planet, with the objective of creating a new permanent peace, both inside and out, to heal at last, the wounded hearts and minds of us all."
Dying to Tell the Story, Tuesday, December 6, 7 p.m., Heely Room in Memorial Hall, Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville. This documentary about war correspondents is being screened in conjunction with the exhibit "Dan Eldon: Images of War, Celebrations of Peace," on view through Wednesday, December 14, at the Gruss Center for the Arts. The gallery will be open from 6 to 7 p.m. on the evening of the screening. 609-620-6026.