The last time Kathy Eldon spoke to her son, they joked about visiting each other. Dan, 22, had phoned from Somalia, where he was covering the 1993 United Nations peacekeeping mission as a photojournalist for Reuters. "I'm sending you a ticket to Africa," he told his mother, then a film producer in England. "No," she replied. "I'm sending you a ticket to London."
Two weeks later, on July 12, the U.N. attacked what was believed to be the command center of a Somali warlord, killing up to 73 people. As an angry crowd gathered in response, Eldon—who had spent much of his life doing charity work in Africa—began snapping pictures. The mob snapped back, hurling rocks at Eldon and four other foreign journalists. All but one were killed. When Kathy Eldon got the phone call at 7 the next morning, she says, "I fell to the ground appealing to God to help me understand this."
Five years later, Kathy Eldon, 52, has turned that despair into a driving ambition to preserve her son's memory and work. In 1995, she began organizing showings in galleries across the country of his 17 journals—filled with vibrant artwork pieced together from photos, broken glass, even snakeskin. Last year, some of the pages were collected in the book The Journey Is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon. Next fall, Columbia Pictures plans to release a feature film based on Dan's life.
His younger sister Amy, 24, who calls her brother "my best friend," also chose a creative outlet for her grief. Together, she and her mother, who live in the same Hollywood apartment complex, wrote a book, Angel Catcher: A Journal of Loss and Remembrance (due out this month), on coping with a loved one's death. Also, as a senior at Boston University in 1996, Amy wrote a treatment about why journalists such as her brother take risks. The idea was recently developed by TBS, which will air the documentary Dying to Tell the Story, hosted by Amy, on Sept. 13. "I had no idea things would evolve the way they did," says Kathy. "It's so huge for me to realize that this one spirit can stimulate the creative juices of so many people."
Throughout his brief life, Dan Eldon devoted himself to art, photojournalism and charity work, but his one constant passion was Africa. "Africa just got into his blood," says Amy. "Once it's in your system, you can never get it out." Dan caught the fever at age 7, when his father, Mike, took a job at a computer firm in Nairobi, Kenya. In his early teens, Dan developed "a particularly compassionate streak," says Kathy, who attributes it to the "tremendous diversity" of the International School of Kenya and the midwestern values he absorbed at summer camp in Iowa, where Kathy grew up. In 1990, he established Student Transport Aid, a charity in which students raised money and delivered cash and blankets to camps in southern Africa.
But he seemed to find his true calling in 1992. At Iowa's Cornell College, he heard about the famine in Somalia. That summer he traveled there to photograph the effects of starvation. After several of his pictures were published in the Nairobi Nation, he was hired by Reuters. Over the next year, his images appeared in several major publications and in April 1993 he published Somalia, a photo essay. Three months later, he was dead.
Mike, divorced from Kathy since 1991, has honored his son's memory in Nairobi, where he lives with his wife, Evelyn. In 1994, Mike and Evelyn opened the Dan Eldon Place of Tomorrow, a youth center teaching creative thinking and self-reliance to students ages 5 to 24. His son, says Mike, 53, lived "with a light touch, even when doing serious things." Indeed, says Jeffrey Gettleman, 27, Dan's friend and a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times, "he could instantly charm people in a really sincere way. Of all the journalists working over there, I thought Dan would be the one to survive."
Still, no one in his family sees Dan as a saint. "He was a normal guy," says Kathy. "He was cheeky. He could be annoying." But she'll always be grateful for what she said to him during that last call five years ago. "No matter what," she told her son, "you're leading the life of your choice, and I'm proud of you.' "
Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles
- Johnny Dodd.