Hard to forget

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

This page, exhibited at the Open Shutter as the print “Cival Society,” shows Dan Eldon’s use of ironic juxtaposition; he saw obvious similarities between Eddie Adams’ iconic photo from the Vietnam War and his own image of a U.S. soldier detaining a Somalian combatant.

By Ted Holteen Herald staff writer

Not since Buddy Holly has a 22-year-old left such a legacy after such a short life as Dan Eldon. And, with all due respect, Buddy Holly was no Dan Eldon.

“His take on the world was so mature. I couldn’t believe his insight and ability to express himself,” said Open Shutter Gallery owner Margy Dudley.

The gallery will open a stunning exhibition of Eldon’s journals and photojournalism tonight. “The Journey is the Destination” will introduce many to the fascinating life of Eldon, which ended 20 years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia, at the hands of an angry mob.

Eldon was born in England to a pair of globe-trotting adventurers. By the time he was 7, he was living in Kenya. That instilled in him a love for East Africa that never faded away. After a stint living in the U.S. and traveling to 46 countries on four continents, his humanitarian soul drew him back to that part of the world.

“As an artist, he was like a global citizen before that was a buzzword,” said Cynthia Young, artistic director for the Dan Eldon Legacy, a foundation started by Eldon’s mother shortly after his death in 1993. Kathy Eldon discovered her son’s cache of 17 journals, which are more like scrapbooks – the pages are covered with Eldon’s photos, illustrations and his words.

“They knew what he was doing but had no idea how extensive they were,” Young said of the journals. “They started the foundation to try to help other young people use media art to create positive change.”

Eldon was, and remains, the youngest staff photojournalist ever hired by Reuters, the international news agency. His potential was limitless, and judging by the company he kept, it’s a safe assumption that he would be a major player in today’s mass media industry.

“I’m sure Dan would be doing something off the grid. He had that compassionate humanitarian soul, and it would’ve carried him someplace,” Young said. “He would go off and sleep in the streets, or in jails if it was insecure. Kids were trekking all over, and at that period of time, it wasn’t done in style.”

In 1990, Eldon led a group of aspiring media types on an East African goodwill mission. Along for the ride were future Oscar-winning director Chris Nolan (“Batman,” “The Dark Knight”) Oscar-nominee Roko Belic (“Genghis Blues,” “Happy”), The New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman, (who survived a 2004 kidnapping in Baghdad and a hijacking in Ethiopia in 2007), and Elinor Tatum, publisher and managing editor of the Amsterdam News, America’s largest African-American newspaper.

“We’re going back and looking at the people who were his colleagues, who went on safari with Dan in Somalia,” Young said. “It’s interesting that all those kids were together in the same place. They were all impacted from being in Africa, the freedom they were given as kids.”

One of the new exhibits created by the foundation is being called “The Durango Series,” because the large prints will debut at the Open Shutter exhibit. In addition to the exhibited prints, Eldon’s journal No. 14 will be on display for the Durango show.

Eldon’s journals were filled with irony, satire and heartfelt sadness as he witnessed Somalia and other East African nations fall into civil war. He was in Mogadishu during the fighting portrayed in the film “Black Hawk Down”, and had gained the trust and admiration of the locals as one of few non-Africans who reported on the violence honestly and without Western bias.

On the day of his death, a helicopter was bombing a small village and one of Eldon’s friends asked him to document that they were bombing women and children. He grabbed a videographer and driver and drove about an hour to the site. But when the frenzied crowd spotted them, they saw only Americans and didn’t realize he was coming to help. They chased the small group and stoned them to death. Eldon died of a head wound.

Young will not be able to travel from California for tonight’s opening, but she will speak on a panel later this month during Durango Film, the local film festival. She will discuss the making of the documentaries about Eldon’s life, “Dying to Tell the Story” (1998) and “The Art of Life” (1997), though neither film is included in the Durango Film program.


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