Were I in the classic hypothetical situation of being stranded on a desert island with only a select few possessions, I think I’d like to have the book “The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon.” It was a major inspiration to me as a young collage artist, and I continue to discover new things every time I look at it.
Born in London in 1970, Dan and his family moved to Nairobi, Kenya when he was seven. (His British father was an information technology specialist, and his American mother a journalist.) Able to explore freely, the boy was enthralled with his new homeland. Between the locals he quickly won over and the international school he attended, Dan developed a rich cultural view.
When he was fourteen, his class visited a Masai clan. Assigned to create a scrapbook of the field trip, Dan returned with feathers, beads, photographs and more, ultimately creating a dazzling volume. This was the first of seventeen collage journals he produced over the course of his life. The young artist filled the black bound books with mixed media records of his life and his vision of the world. And only his closest friends and family were allowed to see them.
Publicly, Eldon focused his visual sense on photography. He accompanied his mother on interviews for Kenya’s major English language newspaper, earning his first photo credits when he was fourteen. His mom encouraged him to use photography as a means of storytelling.
At the same time, Dan’s passion emerged for helping others. He designed clothing, ran bakesales and threw parties to raise money for a native Kenyan child in need of heart surgery. He also befriended a Masai family who lived in isolation twenty miles from Nairobi. The mother struggled to feed her children as a maker of beaded jewelry. So Dan started hitching rides out to their barren land to buy sacks loaded with her creations. In the weeks following each visit, he’d persuade every teacher and student at his school, every family friend and tourist to buy a bracelet or necklace.
When he was seventeen, the emerging photographer earned a fashion magazine internship in New York. His journal from the time reveals his homesickness for the warmth and color of Kenya, a new cynicism and distrust, and confusion at being apart from his family. (He was particularly close with his younger sister Amy, who appears in many of his works.)
Three months later, Dan fled back to Nairobi, where he bought an old Land Rover. Ready to embrace Africa, he and two friends traveled through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. In Malawi, they came upon a camp of refugees from Mozambique. These displaced people without any resources remained on Dan’s mind as he continued alone from Malawi to Cape Town.
After traveling to Berlin following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eldon flew to California, where he enrolled in Pasadena Community College. He told his friends at PCC about the refugees he met in Malawi, and they started an organization called Student Transport Aid, raising $17,000 for the people in the camp.
At the end of that school year, Dan and thirteen friends of seven nationalities, aged fifteen to twenty-two, arrived in his home of Nairobi. Purchasing a second Land Cruiser there, they headed south to Malawi to where they used the money they raised to fund two wells for the camp, along with tools and blankets.
The intrepid humanitarian followed with similar missions throughout Africa. He also visited Moscow–his journal pages there hard and angry–and Japan, where his work took on eroticism. He was never afraid to leave the tourist thoroughfares, and wherever he went, his camera came with. At twenty-two years old, Eldon became the youngest ever Reuters photojournalist.
In the summer of 1992, Dan heard rumors that a town in Somalia was suffering from famine. He and a friend from the Philadelphia Inquirer drove north to find out for themselves, discovering things were far worse than any of the reports. His photographs of the scores of starving people and the dead were among the first to break the news to the world of the conflict in Somalia.
He returned again and again to the troubled country, getting to know everyone from aid workers, to street thieves, Marines, to local children, earning the nickname “the Mayor of Mogadishu.”
In a 1992 article, “Photography in Danger Zones,” he wrote:
The hardest situation to deal with is a frenzied mob, because they cannot be reasoned with. I try to appeal to one or two of the most sympathetic and restrained looking people with the most effective looking assault rifles, but I have realized that no photograph is worth my life.
But in the summer of 1993, a mob took Dan’s life anyway. He and three colleagues arrived at the scene of a UN bombing of a house believed to be General Aidid’s headquarters, that injured and killed over a hundred bystanders. As the photographers began snapping pictures, the furious crowd turned their anger on the foreigners, stoning and beating them till they were no more.
I recently got a copy of The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon as a gift for someone, prompting me to revisit the stunning compilation myself. As I said, I discover new elements every time I look at it, and this time, what stood out were the postal bits. Postage stamps (his father introduced him to stamp collecting as a boy), mailing labels, envelope trims, and the occasional postcard jumped out at me.
Realizing the prevalence of these postal snatches in Eldon’s collages, I considered what they add to the works. To me they symbolize internationalism. (After all, bridging distances, both physical and personal, is what snail mail’s for.) They convey Eldon’s delight in cultural detritus, an extension of his fascination with the chaotic world and love of its breadth of people.