Bringing a voice to ‘Silent Lives’

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French photographer Guillaume Bonn has aimed his lens at Africa’s oft-forgotten servant class. Before his turn to artistic photography, Bonn spent decades covering war zones as a photojournalist, and was a childhood friend of Dan Eldon. Bonn’s work is on display at the Dan Eldon Center on Pacific Coast Highway, in the American Apparel building on the border of Malibu and Topanga. Photo by Guillaume Bonn

Photojournalist Guillaume Bonn turns to social commentary in his American art gallery debut at the Dan Eldon Creative Visions Center.

By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times

Nineteen years ago, on July 12, 1993, 22-year-old photojournalist Dan Eldon was killed while on assignment in Somalia. His death later inspired the founding of the Dan Eldon Creative Visions Center, a gallery on the second floor of the American Apparel building on PCH. Three weeks ago, Paris-based photographer Guillaume Bonn, his close childhood friend, advanced Eldon’s legacy by launching his first U.S. art exhibit. Until recently a photojournalist, Bonn has transitioned to social commentary via artistic photography. Bonn’s new exhibit, called “Silent Lives,” runs now through Aug. 5, and features 18 photos capturing Africa’s “invisible” class, plus six images taken in Africa by Eldon.

Born in Madagascar and raised in Kenya with his friend Eldon, Bonn became sensitive to the plight of the servant class firsthand as he grew up in affluence. Following his fellow photojournalist friend Eldon’s death, Bonn spent two decades chronicling wars in Somalia, Darfur, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan and Afghanistan for the New York Times, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and other periodicals. The newly minted artist, nominated for a Pictet Prize, has exhibited in the Nairobi National Museum.

On June 21, Eldon’s surviving family members welcomed Bonn at the gallery they created in Dan’s memory.

“We have known Guillaume since he was l7,” said Dan’s mother, Karen Eldon of Malibu. “Dan and Guillaume were fellow adventurers in Kenya—driving a battered Land Rover named Deziree through the backstreets of Nairobi and into the bush surrounding the city. Challenging authority and convention, they photographed all they saw: beautiful girls, Masai warriors, Masai circumcision ceremonies.”

As July 12–the 19th anniversary of Dan’s death–rapidly approached, The Malibu Times spoke with Bonn at the gallery the day before he returned to his Montmartre home.

What is the subtext of “Silent Lives?”

You have a setting where there is a divide between the employers and the employees. I wanted to bring light to people who become part of the background—nannies, security guards, gardeners, chefs. Very rarely do the employers know anything about the help or their lives. I wondered what happened to my own nannies and my dad could not tell me. It’s entrenched in the culture. My great-grandfather came to Africa in 1880. He came with the Colonial army. My grandfather was a farmer. My dad worked in business in Africa, Asia, the Middle East. I live in Paris now, but there’s a French saying: “mal d’Afrique.” When you’re away, it always calls you back.

Is the divide between employer/employees based on race?

No. Black, white, Indians—all have employees who make minimum wage in Kenya, about $100 a month.

One photo features an askira (“guard”) with bow/arrow in a guard house. Are these candid photos?

Some are staged, most are taken guerrilla style. In Kenya, the criminals have guns. The government tolerates citizens arming themselves with bows and arrows. My subjects’ employers remained anonymous. However, I was at a holiday party in Nairobi, which is a very small community. One employer, a middle-aged white woman, slapped me in the face. She didn’t like the pictures. I was stunned. I said, ‘Merry Christmas’ and left.

As someone who experienced war-torn countries firsthand, what are viewers not getting through the news?

The smell of death. The fear of people. How life is worth nothing.

Were you ever in serious danger?

I’ve been kidnapped, bombed at, shelled at by tanks. Luckily, I was never injured. Dan and I were 22 years old when he died. It gave me a heads up. When it touches one of your best friends, you know what that means.

What were the circumstances of your kidnapping?

This was in 2002 in Mogadishu, not far from where Dan was killed. I made decisions quickly because of Dan, which ultimately saved my life. A photographer, myself and our translator were roaming around downtown Mogadishu. There were these hardcore Muslims with extremist Islamic views in charge of that territory. It was a checkerboard of power. One group would control an area, three blocks later, another. Apparently, we had no permission to be there. While at a destroyed cathedral, we heard the zing-zing of bullets going by our heads. We plunged to the ground. Our captors came over to us. You try not to make eye contact with them. They head-butted us with their AKs.

They brought us into a place, some flats. The women were covered, you could only see their eyes. Luckily, I was with a translator who was a very old man. Old man equals wise man in this culture. They ushered him out. We had to sit and wait. It was not very comforting. He was taken away at 7:30 a.m. and returned at 5:30 p.m. He had negotiated our release.

But it was coming out that was really tense. There were many people in the streets angry at us. I thought we were going to be shot or mobbed. Our bodyguards had fled. The same people who kidnapped us came to our hotel room at 6 a.m. to apologize. They invited us to go with them but I refused. The photographer decided to go. He was ambushed. He returned bloody after spending half a day trying to get out.

Isn’t it ironic that, had Dan not died so tragically, the venue for your American debut wouldn’t exist?

It’s an irony and it’s not. I look at it as the continuation of Dan not having time to develop as a photojournalist. I feel he’s always looking after me.