Today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Dan Eldon. He was only 22 years old. Yet already at that age he was a young man of many talents and achievements: Artist. Activist. Adventurer. Accomplished war photographer.
I never knew Dan, but, like many people who only came to know of Dan after his tragic and untimely death, I found Dan to be an inspiration. As near contemporaries (Dan was a few years older than me), I’d like to think that Dan was a kindred spirit – although, in truth, I’m not sure If I could have kept up with him! … Dan lived a life more full - in just 22 years - than most of us manage in twice, three, or four times as long. We can only imagine what he would have gone on to have made of such a rare and genuine life. Yet, I wonder what he would have made of the inspiration his life has since become for others?
I first heard of Dan when browsing in one of the bookshops on London’s Charing Cross Road I came across a newly published book titled: “The Journey Is The Destination” (1997). The book is a fascinating compilation of his vibrant and riotously chaotic journals – each page a lavish spread of colour, collage, and creativity that simply spills out in an intriguing and enticing, cavorting, and exuberant telling of a remarkable life being chronicled by a marvellously open and accessible young man. I was 22 years old, the same age as Dan when he died, when I came across the book – which made the book seem all the more immediate. I could relate to what I found in those pages. Unconsciously drawn to exactly this sort of creativity. Dan’s journals reminded me of an article I’d seen in The Sunday Times Colour Supplement of Peter Beard’s earlier photographs and artworks inspired from a life also lived in Africa. Lamentably for me the London suburbs weren’t quite as exotic as Africa, yet I too used to be fond of creating collages. I used to plaster my Sixth Form College folders inside and out with images cut from magazines and newspapers. And a walk-in cupboard in my room was similarly adorned with an intricate mosaic of miniscule movie stills and doodles. I’d already experimented with what I called ‘photocopier art’ to create one multi-layered book of stories, poems, and images a few years before. But now, inspired by Dan, I too created a ‘scrapbook chronicle’ of my own first 22 years. Mine’s just a single book. Dan managed to fill some 17 journals. On a different level though Dan’s inspiration fed into something parallel to art which was already an on-going aspiration – for, like Dan, I had a deep wanderlust for travel and adventure. I already had an ‘endgame’ in mind for what kind of life mine would be. A mantra, like Dan’s, had been slowly forming. Art, travel, history, activism, self-chronicling, curiosity for the world at large, seemed all of a piece. I had already been on two life-shaping trips to the former West and East Germanys, and I’d also been to Portugal, Holland, Greece, and Egypt. I knew then that I wanted to make friends with people scattered far and wide in order to shrink and bind the world more closely in some confused and exuberant adolescent desire to know, see, share, and experience everything that the world had to offer. As an affliction or some kind of bug it evidently bit deep because I probably still feel exactly the same even today.
One of Dan’s journals shows him sitting on the steps of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, an ice-cream cone in hand and a camera lying on the step between his feet. I’d visited the same museum in 1993. I had also stood on the mid-point of the great dam at Aswan with a new found friend from South Africa and pointing south across Lake Nasser I’d said: “You live down there. I wonder how long it would take to walk to your house?” Dan would probably have suggested that instead of walking we got ourselves a Land Rover and given it a shot. Perhaps we could have stayed at his house in Nairobi en route. My trip to Egypt was in July 1992 – exactly a year before he died.
“Mission Statement for Safari as a Way of Life: To explore the unknown and the familiar, distant and near, and to record, in detail with the eyes of a child, any beauty (of the flesh or otherwise), horror, irony, traces of utopia or Hell. Select your team with care, but when in doubt, take on new crew and give them a chance.
Look for solutions, not problems.
The most important part of vehicle maintenance is clean windows, so if you are broken down you will enjoy the beauty of the view.”
– Dan Eldon.
Dan was born of a British father and an American mother, but he and his younger sister grew up mostly in Kenya, where he attended the International School in Nairobi – so it’s no wonder he grew up with such an internationally mixed outlook. Unhampered by dull suburban conformities he was able to explore a world which seemed limitless and unbounded, not just in the vastness which is Africa itself but in maintaining his connections with friends and fellow students from all around the world. His journals speak as testament to his endless curiosity and his multi-layered reflections upon all his diverse encounters and explorations. There are Tube tickets and snapshots of Dan in London in his journals and I can’t help wondering if I might have passed him at some point. In the early 1990s I used to go on what I liked to call “walkabouts”, exploring London on foot, randomly navigating different streets each time, relying only on a natural sense of direction, building up my own mental A-Z map by spinning a web of these streets in my mind as they linked and overlapped in long footsore days spent wandering simply for the sake of wandering. Since then I’ve got to know other cities in much the same way on repeated trips to places such as: Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Taipei, Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, Madrid, Rome, Florence, Zurich …
Eventually a camera became my companion on these “walkabouts”. I come from a family of photographers, but unlike some of my relatives who have really excelled at photography I’ve never really mastered the scientific-art of taking pictures; a moderately natural eye and a lot of good luck have resulted in a few shots I’m fairly proud of. I did give photography a good go though (some years back) when my brother loaned me his old Nikon 35mm SLR and all his kit of lens and filters, etc. I got somewhat hooked on Ilford black and white film, and that distinctive sound that the shutter release makes, followed by the satisfying ‘sense of finish’ that the thumb crank moving the frame on gives you – and the mixed excitement and trepidation of collecting your prints from the developers, leafing through the wallet of shots which until then were framed and fixed only in your mind, now matching them or raising your eyebrows at how they’d turned out differently to what you’d remembered or expected. One summer whilst away camping on an archaeological excavation a free batch of film helped open up my picture taking technique. A friend and I decided to use this unexpected windfall of film to the full and so we resolved not to hesitate when shooting, and in doing so I learnt why the paparazzi shoot rapid quick fire shots – simply because by probability of averages one is bound to be a winner. Modern digital cameras make this even easier, but there’s still something altogether more satisfying about real film which digital cannot match. I recall sensing that film would one day inevitably be surpassed, and I knew even then that I’d one day feel nostalgic for that unknown roulette game which photography was for me, along with the nervous excitement of it all.
Clearly Dan was a fearless and experimental photographer from an early age. Undoubtedly, as I’d seen in some of my relatives, the camera is a device which melds itself to some people as much as they become melded to it – the two become one. They click. And the camera simultaneously becomes a shield and a bridge, in a sense it allows you to look in without being seen, or, conversely it draws attention to you and sets you up for some kind of encounter depending on how you play the situation. Natural photographers allied to their kit seem to bring out the best in people, capturing a skein of reality – with an immediacy– which might otherwise have been missed. I’ve no doubt in my mind that photography is a genuine art. And as a tool of reportage it is an invaluable recording device – it really is a truth that a picture can speak a thousand words. Dan’s photojournalism is a testament to that fact. It rapidly shaped and transformed him, particularly in his last year. In many senses we can see from his images of the crisis in Somalia that he had entered a new phase. His art and his humanitarian instincts, both closely allied elements of his personality, which had come together in his previous aid work initiatives done in collaboration with his sister and his friends had eventually led him on to his career with Reuters. A career and character of dedication which unwittingly led him into a situation he could not have anticipated or controlled, and, consequently, it was one which ultimately cost him his life. Dan and three of his colleagues, Hos Maina, Anthony Macharia, Hansi Krauss, were beaten to death by an angry mob furious at a US/UN air strike of unprecedented brutality which claimed many innocent victims – Dan and his colleagues had gone out, urged by locals to photograph and report on the incident, yet inadvertently they too became victims of the same incident themselves. They died at the hands of the people they were hoping to help.
Dan died far too young. But his life, his art, and his inspiration very much live on. Twenty years later, his name is known. His artwork is still published, exhibited, and appreciated. His activism still inspires and continues to achieve good things through the projects and initiatives kept in perpetual motion by his family and his friends in his name. As I’m sure Dan would agree, the adventure is far from over – for adventure never ends. The journey is always the destination. And “One's destination,” as Henry Miller said, “... is a new way of seeing things.” I think Dan would have agreed with that too.
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With thanks to Cynthia Young at daneldon.org for kindly giving me permission to reproduce the images of Dan, his artworks, and his photographs which accompany this post. Some eight years ago now (2005) I wrote a short piece for the ‘Dan Inspired’ section of daneldon.org and I’m pleased to see the website is still going strong and still attracting similar such contributions and tributes to Dan’s memory. Long may it continue to inspire young people to make a difference, undaunted – to make the world a better place.
Dan Eldon (1970-1993)