Friday, July 12, 2013

I also love Kenya

It is 20 years since Dan Eldon - a bright young star of photojournalism - was killed aged only 22 covering events in Somalia that presaged the so-called Battle of Mogadishu later that year. Eldon’s memory has been kept alive by his family through various initiatives, one of which is a website - Dan Eldon: artist, activist, adventurer - which has a lot of information about, and many extracts from, Eldon’s extraordinary, collage-based, journals.

Dan Eldon was born in London in 1970, the son of a British father and American mother. Aged seven, he and his younger sister moved to live in Kenya with their parents. During the 1982 attempted coup and the aftermath, Eldon joined his mother, a journalist at the time, on local assignments, and was soon taking photographs for local newspapers. Aged still only 14, he launched a fund-raising campaign to help save the life of a young Kenyan girl, and a year or so later began supporting a Maasai family by buying their handmade jewellery, to sell on to students and friends.

In 1988, Eldon graduated from the International School of Kenya, winning various awards and being voted the most outstanding student. That same year he went to New York to work on a magazine, but a few months later moved to study in California. Thereafter, and for the next few years, he kept switching his place of study, while regularly dreaming up schemes to get back to Africa, usually by undertaking somewhat wild but charitable adventures. One of these involved the donation of a Land Rover and money to a refugee camp in Malawi, while others involved the purchase of goods in Morocco to resell in the US to fund a charity he had set up.

In April 1992, Eldon joined a film crew in Kenya; then, with the Somali famine raging, he flew to the Somali town of Baidoa, where he shot some of the first dramatic photographs seen in the West. Reuters spotted them, and engaged his services, thus giving his photographs (of the increasingly desperate situation) much wider coverage. During the spring of 1993, he stayed in Mogadishu, and in June one of his photographs made a double-page spread in Newsweek magazine, as well as the covers of newspapers worldwide. By this time he had also published a first book of his photographs, and had set up various businesses - selling t-shirts and postcards, for example - to raise money.

A few weeks later, on 12 July, he raced, with three colleagues, across the city to cover a raid to arrest the warlord General Aidid. Many innocent people were killed in that UN raid, and in the subsequent confusion Eldon and his colleagues, trying to take photographs, were stoned and beaten to death by an angry mob. Further biographical information is available from the Dan Eldon website, and from Wikipedia.

After Eldon’s death and to honour his legacy, his mother Kathy Eldon and sister Amy Eldon Turtletaub founded, in 1998, the Creative Visions Foundation (CVF) to help others like Dan ‘use media and the arts to create meaningful change in the world around them’. To date CVF ‘has incubated more than 100 projects and productions on 5 continents, by providing fiscal sponsorship, mentorship, inspiration, fundraising, connectivity, and step-by-step toolkits for launching projects’. It claims that creative activists under its umbrella ‘have touched more than 90 million people and raised more than $11.2 million to fund their projects’.

One of projects organised by the family has been to set up the website - Dan Eldon: artist, activist, adventurer - and another has been to promote Eldon’s extraordinary journals and notebooks. The website says this: ‘Dan left behind seventeen bound leather journals filled with drawings, writings and photographs which constructed vivid collages of the world he saw. These journals chronicle a child’s journey into manhood, visual editorials on society, and homages to strangers and loved ones. Dan’s images represent his enduring belief that every individual has a creative spark within that can transform their environment for the better. His journals are a celebration of adventure and a testament to live life to its fullest.’

The diaries were first published as The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon in 1997 by Chronicle Books in San Francisco and Booth-Clibborn Editions in London. The publisher’s blurb stated: ‘This is no ordinary diary; it is an astonishing collage of photographs, drawings, words, maps, clippings, paints, scraps, shards, and trash that reveals his strange and vivid life. The wild trips and weird places, the lovers and late nights, the danger and fun are captured in pages that seem to shiver with passion, opinion, and dark humor. Eldon’s journal holds up a pure mirror to both the sickness of the modern world and the fragile happiness of the human condition, and ultimately, reveals the accidental beauty that only a young artist can truly capture.’

A detailed introduction to the journals by Jennifer New can be found on the Eldon website, as can a generous collection of extracts and images from the diaries themselves. The earliest diaries do contain some text and diary writing, but most of the pages in all the journals are filled to bursting with collages rather than text - but here is one short extract from one of the earliest journals.

22 August 1982
‘I have decided that I am happier this year than any other. I am enjoying life and the people in our class. I have a lighter class load this year. Last year I took French and German and I have dropped German for a year. I also love Kenya (I always have but I still do). I like it less when the weather is bad. We have bought land at the coast where we will build a house which I am looking forward to.’

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