Lest The Picture Fade

FOR KATHY ELDON, THE TRIP WAS THE climax of a four-year obsession. On a blazingly hot day last September, Eldon, her daughter, Amy, a television crew and 40 armed Somali bodyguards rode through the streets of Mogadishu to the rubble of a large cinder-block house. Here, on July 12, 1993, a U.N. helicopter fired missiles into a group of suspected aides to warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, killing 80 people. Minutes after the attack, Kathy's son, Dan Eldon, 22, and three other foreign journalists were cornered by an angry mob and stoned and beaten to death. Now, as mother and daughter approached the killing site to film a documentary, another hostile crowd gathered. ""They were screaming "Get these foreigners out, we don't want to remember that horrible day','' says Kathy Eldon, 51. ""We piled back into the vehicles and left in a hurry.'' She was both shaken and strangely elated by the experience. ""There was a curious sense of joy that we'd been there and seen where he died,'' she says.

Kathy Eldon has not grieved quietly. Over the past four years, she has traveled across three continents--and repeatedly relived her son's horrifying end--in a quest to commemorate his brief, eventful life. She has found an eager audience. Last month Chronicle Press published ""The Journey Is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon,'' a collection of vibrant collages created by Dan from the age of 13 until his death. The book has already sold nearly 30,000 copies, and a second printing is being planned. Meanwhile, former Columbia Pictures president Lisa Henson and Oliver Stone's former partner Janet Yang are developing a feature movie about the last three years of Dan Eldon's life. Next September Amy Eldon, 23, will appear in a Turner Broadcasting documentary about Dan's career called ""Dying to Tell the Story.'' Thousands of teenagers have participated in a Nairobi program founded in 1993 by Dan's father, Michael, called The Depot--Dan Eldon Place of Tomorrow, a sort of Outward Bound-on-the-savanna that teaches leadership skills.

Eldon's story, a mix of doomed innocence, gonzo adventure and Third World exoticism, seems tailored for cinematic mythmaking. Son of a British father and an American mother, now divorced, Eldon grew up in Kenya. His charismatic energy and precocious visual talent led him, at 20, to the office of Jonathan Clayton, then Reuters's Nairobi bureau chief. ""He was another affluent white African kid who announced, "I'm a photographer,' like they all do,'' Clayton remembers. ""But he had a wonderful eye for color and composition, and he was willing to learn.'' Eldon hooked up with the Reuters wire service as a freelancer, then got his big break after the December 1992 U.S. intervention in Somalia. Eldon captured vivid images of clan gunmen, starving children, Cobra helicopter gunships and bikini-clad American soldiers in Mogadishu. Those pictures ran prominently in U.S. newspapers and magazines, including NEWSWEEK.

Kathy Eldon was at home in Santa Monica, Calif., when she received the news of her son's murder. ""I sank to the floor and said, "Somebody help me. Help me','' she remembers. After his violent death, Dan might well have faded into obscurity, but his family was determined not to let that happen. Michael Eldon, a Nairobi businessman, raised funds in Kenya and abroad to launch The Depot. Kathy, an aspiring film producer, began making the rounds of Hollywood film studios and publishers, often bringing along Dan's 17 bound journals. Playful pastiches of newspaper headlines, airline tickets, passport stamps, African coins, maps, condom packages, surrealistic drawings and photographs of teenage nymphets, wildlife and Masai warriors, the journals reflect both a life of white African privilege and a boundless curiosity about the world.

The Eldons' crusade hasn't won over everybody. A few of Eldon's colleagues and friends admit to feeling queasy about the relentless celebration of his short life. ""The Dan I knew would have been embarrassed by it,'' says one Africa-based correspondent who worked closely with him. ""It's over the top.'' Some are also bothered by the disparity between the tributes lavished on Eldon and the scant attention paid to the three journalists who died alongside him: German photographer Hansi Krauss of the Associated Press and Kenyans Hos Maina and Anthony Macharia of Reuters. Kathy Eldon finds such criticism unfair. ""Dan had a spirit of adventure and awareness of the world that we're trying to communicate to people,'' she says. The art on display in ""The Journey Is the Destination'' makes a promising--and poignant--beginning.