daniel eldon, and the journey that changed my life


Mtu hujua atokao, hajui aendako.
- Swahili proverb
("One knows where they are coming from, not where they are going.")

Who would you say was the biggest influence in what you do? Recently I've been thinking often about Daniel Eldon, who has been one of the most inspirational and influential forces on my artwork and life. I was given his posthumously published journal The Journey is the Destination early in high school and can honestly say that it changed my life. Dan was an incredibly talented photographer raised in Kenya who documented his own life and travels as well as the brutal conflict and famine in Somalia through photographs and in his personal journals. While on assignment for Reuters in 1993, he and three colleagues were stoned to death by an enraged crowd in Mogadishu after a mistakenly targeted bombing by U.N. forces. Dan was 22 years old.

Page from Dan Eldon's The Journey is the Destination



After his death, Dan's 17 journals made their way home. Realizing the importance of their contents, his mother Kathy published them in The Journey is the Destination and later The Art of Life.  I can still remember flipping through The Journey cross-legged on my bed, mesmerized, turning and revisiting pages until the corners were dog-eared and the edges soft. I remember feeling like it had pulled me in and cast a spell over me, sort of like a really good novel sometimes can, except everything heartbreaking, visceral and haunting about this book was true; these pages were someone's life. I felt a deep ache in my heart the whole time, partially from the sadness of such a full, vibrant and purposeful life cut dramatically short, but also from an overwhelming gratitude that Dan collected his thoughts and discoveries in such a way. Without exaggeration, that feeling was most closely comparable to what I now know a broken heart feels like.

The title of The Journey is the Destination was pulled from a handwritten ad for "Deziree Safaris", Dan's playful expedition group, and fits both his life and his creative process. Though we'll never know if Dan planned on ever publicly sharing his journals, we know he took incredible care to curate them; like his travels, the creative journey of his artwork was infinitely more important than arriving at any particular finished state. Fittingly, there has never been a more faithful parallel between travel and art than his creed, "What is the difference between exploring and being lost? The journey is the destination." Approaching art, and life, with that understanding makes both infinitely more interesting (and forgiving.)

His hulking memoirs, thick as telephone books, spanned years of his life and thousands of miles and were written not just in words but in feathers, found paper, coins, passport pages, African travel permits, newspaper clippings, snakeskin, trail maps, Dan's own comical sketches and of course photographs. The journals begin with his earliest childhood artwork and follow him throughout his various travels to Europe, Asia and America, charity-driven safari explorations through Africa and into his time as a war journalist. They are visually exquisite and emotionally lavish, full of observations on humanity at large and truths about Dan's life and the complicated world unfolding within him.

Page from Dan Eldon's The Journey is the Destination
Page from Dan Eldon's The Journey is the Destination
Page from Dan Eldon's The Journey is the Destination
Page from Dan Eldon's The Journey is the Destination

Like all of us, Dan struggled deeply with the questions of where? and why? and who else besides me?, and answered them with art, filling some pages with lighthearted or satirical musings and trinkets of daily life, and others with deep, frustrated reminiscence of love and love lost, or heart-wrenching photos of the famine, violence and unrest that would eventually claim his life. In the last pages of The Journey, photographs of automatic weapons, famine and shattered cities stand starkly against empty white journal pages-- likely place-markers that would have been drawn on, painted over, given background stories and vibrant settings had they not been the last things life allowed him to catalogue in his final journal.

Page from Dan Eldon's The Journey is the Destination

What made his journals so powerful to me back then, and still today, is the message created by the sheer volume of it all-- there is just so much. So much good, bad, hurt, love, pain, pleasure, lostness and "foundness." In life, in the world, in ourselves, in each other, waiting for us. Everyday, yesterday, tomorrow, and all this is so overwhelming that it's scary and exhilarating at the same time. As a reporter and an artist, Dan recognized that, and knew that every road deserved to explored, every bit of torn paper or snapshot deserved space in his art, every photograph told a story that had a right to be heard. I think this feeling is why working with mixed media and in journals is so fulfilling to me, as it seems it was to Dan, because it incorporates a little of everything-- the oft-overlooked tangible parts of our very quickly passing days, the mundane moments and the extraordinary finds in life. There is so, so much for us.

Page from Dan Eldon's The Journey is the Destination

Our shared tendency towards wanderlust-- the feeling of needing to be constantly on the move, going, exploring, and preference for being lost rather than found-- has long made me think of Dan Eldon as not only an artistic inspiration but a kindred spirit. I know there are other people like us, too, maybe even someone reading this who is thinking, "I know, I know, I know, yes, yes, yes, exactly!" If any of this has rang familiar for you, these books and his story are for you.

(Yet another incredibly inspiring part of Dan's story is that it was not allowed to die alongside him; his family and friends have ensured that his art and purpose live on in many ways, including the inception of the Dan Eldon Project and the Creative Visions Foundation, both created with the intention of furthering creative activism and honoring his life as a humanitarian, photographer and artist. With permission of the DEP, I photographed some of my favorite pages shared here. Check out more pages of Dan's journals here, some of Dan's photography here, and a short CNN documentary on Dan here (warning: the footage from his work in Somalia is, obviously, very graphic.)