The Journey Is the Destination
The Journals of Dan Eldon
edited by Kathy Eldon
8.25 x 10.75, 224 pages, hardcover
Chronicle Books, 1997
reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
Editor’s Note: This review appeared in 1997 when The Journey is the Destination was first published. Since that time, Eldon’s journals have proved influential for photographers, artists, and graphic designers. For those who admire its graphic sensibilities, this book would seem to encourage time spent with the computer unplugged, working directly with materials. The Journey is the Destination makes as much impact today as when it first appeared.
The danger, if any, I expounded was from our proximity to
a great human passion let loose. — Heart of Darkness
The journals of Dan Eldon were never intended to be published. They were a private affair between a young photographer growing up in Africa and his graphic impulses. Eldon was very young when he set to work, and the earliest pages show him as an adolescent lounging against the side of a Land-Rover. He spilled paint on the photos, wove the fabric of snake-skin, ink, and blood into the paper, juxtaposed a tarot deck with calling cards from prostitutes. Some of the images are layered with thought balloons and handguns in order to form the high-tension scenes of a comic book. Others pages toy with the ironic, fabricating a mythic safari company and then changing the name from Deziree Safaris to Deziree Sex Safaris as Eldon and his friends staged camp photos. Under a blurred shot of his sister he has penned the caption “Amy is attacked by a zebra who finds her flares distasteful.”
It is difficult not to see these books as formative, as leading up to a major work. They are the storyboard for a film that was playing inside Eldon’s mind, a safari across dangerous land with beautiful women.
In their subject matter and in the richness of texture the books are similar to those of the American photographer Peter Beard. Beard, who lived in Kenya, constructed his books from animal, vegetable, and photographic matter. But whereas Beard’s books show the decimation of the big game populations he was working to save — starved elephants, fields of zebra hide, slaughtered rhinos — Eldon’s are centred on people: his sister, his travelling companions, a strange man in Morocco, Masai children and villagers. Eldon was interested in people, and the journeys he made usually had humanitarian ends.
It is interesting that the two men chose to create such elaborate journals. Beard, born in 1938 and educated at Yale, came to Africa and witnessed the end of Ernest Hemingway’s dream, that idea of Africa as an exotic playground. The days of big men, big guns, and big game were over. Eldon, born in England in 1970, came to a very different Africa when he moved with his family to Nairobi when he was seven. Both these photographers found collage the only way to get the rich textures of their lives into a book. Both show an obsession with forms of female beauty, and both made exotic photo shoots with Somali and Ethiopian women. Both have layered their books with quotes, newspaper clippings, and text. Cumbersome objects play a key role in these books. (Beard was horrified when one of his books fell out of a boat, but afterwards, once the pages had dried, he found that the crumpled effect was exactly what he was seeking.)
Dan Eldon’s work is beautiful. The pages are filled with graphic wonders, and the book can hardly contain the exuberance of the early journeys. But later in the journals’ progression are also black pages of disenchantment and heartbreak, loneliness and confusion. The last pages show Eldon’s efforts as a war correspondent. These are stark, merely photos on paper. And after these few pages the last journal ends, abruptly.
In an article entitled “Photography in Danger Zones”, published in Executive Magazine, Eldon had written: “The hardest situation to deal with is a frenzied mob because they cannot be reasoned with. I try to appeal to one or two of the most sympathetic and restrained-looking people with the most effective-looking assault rifles, but I have realized that no photograph is worth my life.” It was an ironic statement, for in July of 1993 an angry mob turned on Eldon and two other journalists who were photographing the site of a UN bombing in Somalia and beat them to death.
Disclosure: A review copy of The Journey is the Destination book was provided by Duthie Books.