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Photographs, Art and Lessons, Taken From a Life Cut Short
In the summer of 1993 Dan Eldon, a 22-year-old photographer for Reuters, was making his way through the streets of Mogadishu to the suspected headquarters of a Somali warlord where scores of people had just been killed in a bombing by United Nations forces. There, amid the rubble, he and three other journalists were set upon by an enraged mob and stoned to death.
The violence made headlines around the world and underscored the perils journalists face covering violent conflicts. Exhibitions of Mr. Eldon’s war photography traveled the world, even as his family members in Los Angeles and Kenya grappled with the loss of a son and a brother.
They found solace in his thousands of photographs and in his journals. In 17 scrapbooks Mr. Eldon had created meticulous collages of the adventures and passions of his teenage and young adult years growing into a man who saw his camera work as a quest for justice.
Recently those images went on view in “The Journey Is the Destination,” a permanent exhibition of Mr. Eldon’s work at the new Candela/Decker gallery in SoHo. (Next year Daniel Radcliffe, the “Harry Potter” star, is to portray Mr. Eldon in a movie about his life.)
In the months after Mr. Eldon’s death his mother, Kathy, repeatedly returned to the thousands of pages in his journals, which were thick with his photographs of Masai warriors, nubile lovers and child soldiers, glued and taped to weathered maps, stamps, cut-out comic-book heroes and newspaper clippings.
She would trace her fingers over the dried paint, snake skins, coins and feathers her son had collected, reading passages describing his fears and triumphs, exploring his rising adult self in the urban jungles of Nairobi, New York and Mogadishu.
"I kept thinking, ‘What can I do to transform this horror into something that would honor Dan’s legacy?’" Ms. Eldon said. After lugging his journals to a series of publishers, she found one — Chronicle Books — that was willing to transform them into a book. It was published in 1997 under the title “The Journey Is the Destination”; more than 200,000 copies have been printed.
That same year Mr. Eldon’s sister, Amy, filmed a documentary, “Dying to Tell the Story,” in which she traveled to the scene of her brother’s death in Mogadishu and interviewed journalists who had worked with him. “I needed to stare down the darkness I was facing,” she said.
A year later Kathy and Amy Eldon founded the Creative Visions Foundation to provide support to activists “who use media, the arts and technology to inform, inspire and empower others.” They donated the journals to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but when the museum said it intended to place the works in its archives, Kathy asked for them back.
“I didn’t want the journals to be hidden and preserved for a hundred years at the cost of people being inspired and energized,” she said. In December 2005 she agreed to let Lisa Candela, a photographer who had been struck by Mr. Eldon’s work, organize a small show of the pages in New York.
Ms. Candela said, “Dan’s story was what I was searching for in myself — the journey, the humanitarian, the living life fearlessly.” She received 350 rolls of Mr. Eldon’s film from his father, Mike, who is divorced from Kathy Eldon and lives in Kenya, and spent the next few months scanning each journal and photograph.
She set aside his edited proof sheets and made new ones from his negatives. “I wanted to test myself,” Ms. Candela said. “I wanted to see if I was the eye to be selecting his images.”
She compared her editing to Mr. Eldon’s. “I can say that 98 percent were the exact same selections,” she said. “To me that was powerful enough.”
In September 2006 Ms. Candela met David Decker, an artist and carpenter, and mentioned that she planned to exhibit Mr. Eldon’s work. Mr. Decker, 30, did a double take. At art school he had picked up “The Journey is the Destination” and had kept it with him ever since.
“I connect to Dan and that book in so many ways, having one foot in the city and one in nature,” Mr. Decker said. “So meeting Lisa, it was like, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
Ms. Candela had planned to hang some prints in a small private show and invite some friends. But a one-night exhibition in a space above the former site of the Tunnel nightclub on Manhattan’s far West Side, drew 1,400 people, including Julia Roberts.
(Mr. Eldon had patronized Tunnel when he was 17 and living in New York, rendering the experience in his journal in chaotic detail: naked pin-up girls, torn dollar bills, cigarette cartons, revelers.)
All 29 works of photography and collage sold, with proceeds going to the curators and the Creative Visions Foundation. The response prompted Ms. Candela and Mr. Decker to seek a lasting exhibition space.
They spent the spring and summer renovating a gallery on Crosby Street in SoHo and opened their exhibition on Nov. 1.
Two weeks ago Amy Eldon saw the exhibition for the first time. When she walked in with her husband and her newborn son, her eyes welled up with tears.
Among the photographs of laughing African children and journal prints of buffalo were Mr. Eldon’s dusty Nikon camera, cracked watercolors and personal letters.
“Dan would push my boundaries and challenge my fears,” Amy Eldon said. “Now we can get that through the gallery.”