Deadly Destiny: Remembering Photojournalist Dan Eldon

Patty Kim
National Geographic On Assignment
December 23, 2003
Editor's Note: Patty Kim, correspondent and host for National
Geographic On Assignment, has been influenced as a journalist, and
personally moved, by the life and work of Dan Eldon—a
photographer who was murdered in Somalia in 1993 at the age of 22. Here she
describes the work and philosophy of Eldon that inspired her
hour-long documentary of his life.
Deadly Destiny airs Friday,
December 26, on the National Geographic Channel.

Like a comet, he blazed through life. Every day was a new adventure. But an act of grief and revenge cut it short.

Dan Eldon was born in London, and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. He worked as a photographer for Reuters news agency in Africa and was only 22 years old when he was murdered.

In July 1992, Eldon and Reuters journalist Aidan Hartley went to Mogadishu to cover the civil war and an epic famine. In January 1991, a militia forced out the Somali dictator, Siad Barre; the country quickly collapsed into chaos, as armed clans fought for control.

Eldon's talent was obvious—barely out of his teens, his photographs of the war made double-page spreads in Time and Newsweek.

"Africa and Dan were this great partnership because…on one level [Africa's] incredibly beautiful, the landscape, the people, the cultures—it's stunning. But beneath that is incredible poverty, incredible violence and disorder and chaos, and there's a thin line that sort of separates those two sides," said Jeff Gettleman, a reporter for the New York Times, based in Atlanta, Georgia. "Dan would just sort of walk along that and you could tell that he just drew so much energy from [those] two parts of his life."

On July 12, 1993, intervening U.S. forces—part of a UN mission to end famine—fired missiles at a house they believed was a stronghold of Somali warlord General Mohammed Farah Aideed. Eldon and his colleagues rushed to the site. Survivors of the devastating attack pulled shredded bodies from the rubble. Seconds later, the mob's grief gave way to rage; Eldon had no choice but to run for his life.

Beaten to Death

Along with three others, he was stoned and beaten to death on a dusty street in Mogadishu.

That might have been the end of Eldon's story had his mother, Kathy Eldon, not made a fateful decision to publish her son's journals. These were no ordinary documents.

Her son had left behind 17 black journals, many as thick as a New York telephone directory. Together there were more than two thousand pages bursting with life and studded with shards of glass, leather, ostrich feather, coins, rice; photos and sketches were brilliantly embroidered with wax and even traces of blood.

"They were as intricate as needlework, and they left you speechless," recalled childhood friend Robert Norton, a film distributor living in Los Angeles.

But to Eldon's mother, they were more than examples of a young man's breathtaking artistry.

"I felt, from an early point right after he was killed that there was much more to [his tragic death] than met the eye. Dan's life had a purpose."

"The way he galloped through his life, the message of humanity to humanity he left behind was really important, especially to young people, and if I could find a way to get people to respond to it—it's just that there was a message in those journals I had to get out," said Mrs. Eldon, who now lives in L.A.

Her instincts proved correct.

A few years after her son was killed, Mrs. Eldon published his extraordinary journals in a book called The Journey is the Destination. Since then, thousands of people around the world have flooded her and Dan's sister, Amy, with emails, letters and artwork, all with the same resounding message: Dan Eldon's spirit had changed their lives.

Under the Journals' Spell

I have to admit, I was one of those who fell under the journals' spell. I picked up the book as a gift, but it never left my side.

The experience is not so much opening a book as cracking open a universe; the journal is alive and bubbling with Eldon's cheeky sense of humor, energy, and boldness. The beauty and power of the pages rise like a vapor.

But for me, and maybe for the others, it wasn't just the striking imagery that drew me in. It was the knowledge that this was not a coffee table art book. This was a testament to a life lived. It was here in these pages that a young man chronicled his heartaches, moments of despair, and vigorous investigation into the "Big Questions of Life"—the nature of Good versus Evil, for example.

I realized for all his charm, Dan Eldon wasn't a saint. His father, Mike Eldon, reveals that "Dan wasn't always an easy person, he was obstinate and he could be unreasonable. But generally, the normal Dan was a chap that brought out the best in other people."

This is the very core of what moves me about this young man. He knew from an early age, almost instinctively, that we don't have a long time here. And it's taken me forever…to figure that out. I couldn't waste any more time. I had to tell this story.

In a mission statement titled "Safari as a Way of Life," Dan Eldon wrote:

"The most important part of vehicle maintenance is clean windows, so if you are broken down, you will enjoy the beauty of the view."

National Geographic On Assignment, 7 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT in the United States, is available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it.

Got a high-speed connection? Watch National Geographic On Assignment in streaming video.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.