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Photojournalist’s Brief Life Leaves Big-Picture Legacy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The journey is the destination.

--Dan Eldon

*

The telling of 22-year-old photojournalist Dan Eldon’s brief, compelling life has become the common journey for studio and television executives scrambling for fresh material.

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A two-hour TBS documentary airing Sunday and a feature film in development at Columbia Pictures explore the story of the young Reuters photographer from different perspectives: one professional, the other personal.

Eldon was among four journalists stoned to death by an angry Somali mob on July 12, 1993--the same people he had befriended and aided by exposing their hideous plight of starvation and war through his work. It had been some of his earliest photographs that spotlighted Somalia’s tragedy, capturing the world’s attention and prompting intervention from several countries, including the United States.

His life is the thread woven through “Dying to Tell the Story,” TBS’ documentary examining journalists in combat zones. Journeying back to the Somalia site of her older brother’s death, narrator Amy Eldon probes eight of the world’s top war correspondents on what drives them to live in danger.

Director Kyra Thompson’s documentary of their accounts of life on the front line, framed by horrific images of war, first screened at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance Sept. 2, followed by other screenings in San Francisco; Boston; Arlington, Va.; and at the United Nations on Thursday night.

It was associate producer and author Amy and her mother, Kathy Eldon, executive producer, journalist and author (they co-wrote the book “Angel Catcher”), who brought TBS “the idea of documenting what happens to these journalists, why they are willing to endanger their lives to record living history,” said Pat Mitchell, president of Turner Original Pictures, CNN Productions and Time Inc. Television and the documentary’s executive producer.

Dan Eldon’s 17 private journals are at the heart of Australian screenwriter Jan Sardi’s script for Columbia. Sardi was nominated for an Oscar for “Shine.” Kathy Eldon is producing the film with Lisa Henson and Janet Yang of Manifest Films. A search for director and cast is underway with production targeted for next spring.

“Dan is one among nine in the documentary. He is the reason for the film but by far not the only part,” his mother says. “It covers but one year of his life as a photojournalist. The film is about his whole life. About a boy growing up in Africa and discovering his destiny . . . about an artist.”

That discovery is revealed in large part through the young Eldon’s journals, discovered by his mother after his death. Bulging with bits of feathers, shells, drawings, trash, clippings, poetic writings, troubling accounts and photographs, they stand as a virtual collage of his unusual experience. Much of it is displayed in the book his mother had published, “The Journey Is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon,” with 30,000 copies already sold.

Born in London, Dan moved to Kenya with his family when he was 7. By 14, he was raising money to help a Kenyan girl receive open heart surgery. At 15, he supported a Masai family by selling jewelry to students and friends. He traveled to 46 countries, spoke six languages and lived briefly in New York and Los Angeles. He enrolled in Pasadena Community College, then transferred to UCLA, where he set up the charity Student Transport Aid, which donated $25,000 to Save the Children Fund. He headed to his mother’s native Iowa, then decided to take a few classes at Cornell University but quickly aborted his education when he learned of famine raging in Somalia.

It was 1992 and the beginning of his brief career as a correspondent, his stirring photographs quickly landing him a job at Reuters in Africa. By April, he published his book “Somalia” and, two months later, Newsweek carried a double-page spread of his alarming photos from the strife-ridden country.

By June 1993, Eldon said, her son had had enough of “violence and horror.” He called his mother on the eve of July 12 and told her he was coming home the next day. It was not to be. Dan Eldon and his colleagues raced to Mogadishu to cover the United Nations bombing of the headquarters of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. In the confusion, an angry crowd stoned the journalists to death.

“After ‘Shine’ took off, Dan’s story was one of 10 projects pitched to me,” Sardi recalled from his home in Melbourne, Australia. “The turning point was when I met Kathy and she opened those journals, and I knew whatever life was creating those works must be a compelling story. His story is about the bigger themes of life . . . destiny, finding a sense of purpose.”

Sardi said he decided to write Eldon’s story because he wanted his children and other young people to be inspired to pursue a higher purpose in life.

* “Dying to Tell the Story” will be shown at 6 p.m. Sunday and again at 9:40 p.m. Monday on cable’s TBS.


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