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Young photographer exposed Somalia's horrors

December 7, 1997
Web posted at: 2:27 p.m. EST (1927 GMT)

(CNN) -- You may never have heard of Dan Eldon , but once you learn of him, you may never forget him.

In the summer of 1992, Eldon and a friend from the Philadelphia Inquirer set out from Kenya to the Somali town of Baidoa to see if there was any truth to a rumor of famine in the African nation.

What they found would, within about a year, transform a young man into an internationally renowned photojournalist and bring his short life to an end.

In Baidoa, Eldon and his friend photographed skeletal children, scores of dead babies and hundreds of starving men and women. The photographs were the first to document the devastation in Somalia. They made the covers of newspapers and magazines around the globe and served as an SOS to the world.

QuickTime slide show: a selection of Elden's photos.
video icon 225K/45 sec./320x240
QuickTime movie

Within months, the International Red Cross determined that one-fourth of 6 million Somalis were starving. On August 28, the United States began delivering emergency food supplies to the nation. Attacks on relief efforts by Somalia's warring factions would lead to the arrival of international peacekeeping forces.

Eldon continued taking pictures and became such a popular figure among the Somalis that they dubbed him "Mayor of Mogadishu."

On July 12, 1993, U.N. troops bombed a house believed to be the headquarters for the warlord known as Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid. Eldon, who had been retained as a free-lancer for Reuters nine months earlier, and three other journalists were dispatched to the scene to record the carnage.

They were met by an angry mob of more than 100 people who turned on the journalists who were trying to help them. Eldon and his friends were stoned to death by the crowd.

Dan Eldon was 22. He was expecting a Reuters photographer to arrive in Somalia that day to replace him.

Documenting his own life

Dan on the beach
 Dan on the beach   

Not long after Eldon's death, someone delivered a rucksack of his belongings to his family. In the sack was a journal, the 17th that Dan had written since he began keeping journals as a school assignment at age 14.

Eldon's family was very familiar with his journals. But this one was different, reflecting the profound change in his life since he first found the starving people of Somalia.

His first 16 journals were a collection of whimsical drawings, photographs he had drawn or written on, short sayings, collages, and tales of romantic encounters.

The journal he kept in Somalia was simple, and like his life, unfinished. It contained only photographs attached to pages.

A L S O :

Images From the Journal

Eldon always kept his journals close and only shared them with the closest of family members. But since his death, his mother has compiled the collection into a book that she has just published: "The Journals of Dan Eldon: The Journey is the Destination."

Eldon's family believes that even though he kept his journals private while he was living, they are something he would want shared now that he is gone. The Eldons also believe Dan's journals contain something for everyone.

"I think people are fascinated by the extent of his life," says his mother, Kathy Eldon, who edited the book. "By the depth and breadth, and width and height ... just the diversity of Dan's life as witnessed through the journals."

His sister, Amy, says Dan literally poured his life into the pages of the 17 black-bound volumes.

"If he was frustrated or overjoyed, he would just pour it all into his journals," Amy Eldon told CNN. "And because he had this outlet he was never bored."

In the book's forward, Kathy Eldon writes that her son was so consumed with documenting his life, and the events he witnessed in life, that "one girlfriend complained that he spent more time recording their relationship than actually enjoying it."

An unusual life

Dan with sister
   Dan with sister   

The book documents that the young man of 22 packed more into his short life than most people can cram into 80 years.

Born in London in 1970 to a British father and American mother, Dan Eldon and his family moved to Nairobi when he was 7. By the time he died, Eldon had traveled four continents, led expeditions across Africa, worked as a graphic designer for a New York magazine, helped make a film, and helped create a better life for some 6 million people.

Kathy Eldon says her son was always capitivated by Africa and always drawn to help others.

At age 14, the young Eldon learned a young Kenyan child needed heart surgery. He mobilized an effort to raise money for her surgery, designing boxer shorts and tee shirts, setting up bake sales and hosting dances in his back yard. The surgery was successful, but the child contracted malaria and died.

When he was 17, Dan left Africa for New York to work as a design intern for Mademoiselle magazine. He returned to Nairobi three months later and bought a 17-year-old Land Rover he nicknamed Deziree.

Eldon and two friends set off on a safari through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In Malawi, the pair happened across a vast refugee camp of displaced Mozambicans who had fled civil war. Their plight so moved Dan that when he entered Pasadena Community College, in California, he founded a charity, Student Transport Aid, dedicated to helping the refugees.

The group raised $17,000, and 14 people, including Eldon, traveled to Africa the following summer to deliver aid. By the end of their expedition, they had donated to the refugees a land cruiser, money for two wells, blankets and tools. Eldon was 19.

In one of his journals, Eldon penned a mission statement for the relief team: "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."

In a video of their journey, Dan said: "It wasn't that we wanted to bring them the things because they were pathetic and couldn't do anything for themselves. It was because when we were there they were dancing for us, and the children just seemed so alive and happy ... the whole thing isn't a sympathy thing."

'You may only dance a short while'

Eldon's mother says the images he witnessed on his first trip to Somalia changed him enough to make his entire family take notice.

"It affected him profoundly," Kathy Eldon told CNN. "He said, 'I don't know how this experience has affected me, but I feel different.' And, he was different. There was a depth to him and a pain to him that we had not seen before."

Before he traveled to Baidoa, Eldon had only seen two dead bodies. Within months, he so quickly became acclimated to working in war conditions that he wrote a piece entitled "Photography in Danger Zones," that was published in Executive magazine in Kenya in November 1992.

It now seems like an odd foreshadowing of his own death:

"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."

"I think one of the most important things Dan would have said to kids all over the world ... (is) you may only dance for a short time," Kathy Eldon told CNN. "His dance has been very short indeed. But he would've said, 'You choose your dance, you choose your music for your dance. You dance proudly. You dance with incredible spirit and vigor and creativity and life and joy, and especially you go out and dance with love."

CNN Newsroom's Charles Tsai contributed to this report.


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