Obituary: Dan Eldon

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The Independent Online
Dan Eldon, photographer: born London 18 September 1970; died Mogadishu 12 July 1993.

DAN ELDON, who died after being attacked by a mob in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, made his name as a war photographer, but he was hardly the professional 'firefighter' who snaps away, barely conscious of whether he's in Bosnia or Baidoa. His heart was in Africa.

Eldon was seven years old when his parents moved there. Few whites who are not born in Africa ever truly step out of the expatriate mould, but Eldon was a rare one. He spoke Kiswahili fluently, and amassed a long list of Somali swearwords which he used to amuse the children and startle the troublemakers of Mogadishu. As a teenager he twice drove overland to southern Africa, and made (and kept) a mass of African friends along the way. He knew all the best African bands, and his room in his father's house in Nairobi was filled with pictures he had taken up and down the continent.

Central to his love and ease with Africa were two unspoken tenets; that you get out of Africa what you put into it, and you learn nothing there if you abandon your sense of humour. Eldon's journals - daybooks stuffed with his drawings, pictures, cartoons and comments - are testimony to that.

The first of these tenets inspired a series of artistic and charitable projects in which Eldon, always encouraged by his parents, involved his many friends. At college in Los Angeles he made money designing and printing T-shirts and postcards, something he would do again in Mogadishu. Over time, he raised enough funds to take 14 teenagers thousands of miles with him overland to Malawi. He was still only 19. They travelled in two vehicles, his trusty Land-Rover nicknamed 'Deziree', and a Toyota Land-Cruiser. Although the journey was long, Eldon, ever-tenacious and charming, made it fun without losing sight of its true purpose. When they got there, he and his friends identified needy local organisations. To one they donated money to build a waterhole, to another blankets for the local hospital, and to a third the Land-Cruiser and money to maintain it. If Eldon made serious things fun, it was with an enthusiasm that sent sterner souls tut-tutting away in disapproval.

It was hardly surprising, since Eldon had many journalist friends in Nairobi, that he should be drawn into the swelling story of Somalia early in 1992. Reuters signed him on as their most junior photographer, and he learned his trade on the job. Gradually picture editors in London and New York came to choose his work over that of their own staff photographers. In less than a year, his pictures appeared on the front pages of most British and American newspapers, as well as Time and Newsweek.

Eldon's photographs were informed by his deep sense of Africa. I remember sitting on the balcony of his father's Nairobi home earlier this year, and looking through his album: the 'death bus' that went around Baidoa collecting bodies, the young soldier standing in Mogadishu's gaunt shot-up cathedral with cigarette on lip and AK-47 on hip; a young warlord with attitude.

But it was the way Eldon waded fully into Mogadishu life that set him apart from other 'immigrant' photographers. He re-established his T- shirt business, using Mogadishu printers, designed postcards, and had a book of his photographs published. Every day he went out with his camera, alternately charming and shocking the people of Mogadishu into working with him to create the best pictures; pictures that tell a story. Eldon became one of the best-known Westerners in the city.

His Somali protectors laughed and called him the 'Mayor of Mogadishu'.

(Photograph omitted)