An unfinished life

After his senseless death in Somalia, Dan Eldon's mother created a memorial out of his remarkable journals.

Published October 20, 1997 8:36AM (EDT)

How to make sense of a young life interrupted? How to create beauty from the brutal death of your child? When Kathy Eldon's son, Dan, was killed, she built a memorial to him from the vibrant images he had created. Already a prominent Reuters war photographer by the age of 22, Dan Eldon was stoned to death in Somalia in 1993 by a mob angered by a U.N. bombing raid. After his death, his mother discovered 17 black-bound journals that she believed told "the other half" of his life story.

The result, "The Journals of Dan Eldon: The Journey is the Destination" (Chronicle Books), is an arresting montage of Dan's artwork, breathless multimedia explosions that combine text, photographs and drawings. Throughout his collages, newsprint is splayed across photographs, magazine cutouts are lined with magic-marker skidmarks and bursts of technicolor are contrasted with haunting black-and-white images. The subjects range from seductive lovers to the ravaged bodies of Somali refugees. A quote from Plato -- "Only the dead have seen the end of war" -- is penned in Dan's adolescent scrawl across one page.

"I didn't want this to be just a coffee table book to admire," says Kathy, a journalist, who edited the book and wrote the introduction. "I wanted it to be an inspiration."

Dan Eldon grew up in London and Nairobi, a wildly creative child who reveled in imaginary safaris and explorations of the bush around his home. At the age of 14, after visiting a tribe of Masai warriors in Kenya, he designed his first scrapbook from cut-up photos, feathers, bits of shells and beaded jewelry, overlaid with watercolors and smudges of blood -- a project that his mother says "allowed his spirit to be released. " He kept journals from then on, recording his travels, his loves and his confusion about a world both brutal and beautiful. By the time of his death, Dan had traversed four continents, worked at African refugee camps, written a book, made a film, worked as a graphic designer in New York and become a renowned photojournalist.

Dan returned repeatedly to Somalia, where he was drawn to the people but grew increasingly weary of violence and death. "Please don't ask me to leave," he told his mother in their last phone conversation. "My job isn't done." His final journal is a stark evocation of war, filled with gripping images of Somalia. "Like his life, it is unfinished, " writes his mother, "the photographs standing as mute but powerful reminders of a life that ended too soon." It leaves the reader wondering, how would the life of this passionate young man have unfolded?

Dan Eldon's creative legacy lives on at DEPOT, the Dan Eldon Place of Tomorrow, a youth center in Nairobi. Columbia Pictures is developing a film about his life, based on a screenplay by Jan Sardi ("Shine").

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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