Remembering James Foley

The first time I heard of Jim Foley was when the news of his capture in Libya circulated the news. Foley, along with other journalists, Clare Gillis and the Spanish photographer Manu Brabo were captured and held for forty-four days in April of 2011 by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Anton Hammerl, a South African photographer, was also traveling with them. During these forty-four days Hammerl’s family was led to believe that he was alive and also held captive in Libya. It was only after Foley’s release that we learned Hammerl’s fate. Hammerl was shot and left to die by Qaddafi soldiers during their ordeal in the Libyan desert.

In television interviews Foley describes how their group came under direct fire by Qaddafi loyalists as they passed the last rebel held checkpoint on a road near the city of Brega. As they ran for cover, Hammerl was shot and the other three were captured. Foley called out to his dying colleague, but once the soldiers arrived, the three were beaten and taken away to Tripoli. Hammerl was left behind to bleed to death.

Photo: Nicole Tung

I met Jim a few weeks after his release during a fundraising event for Hammerl’s three children at Christie’s auction house in New York. A group of photographers had organized a website under the name Friends of Anton. I had contributed a print to the website and the subsequent auction. The auction received ample media attention and was hosted by Christian Amanpour. Foley and Gillis spoke to the audience about their time in Libya and they remembered Anton fondly.

Jim arrived early before the start of the auction as I was helping to hang the prints. I chatted with him and talked about his travels and the civil war in Syria. The conflict had just intensified earlier that year during the Arab Spring. Jim was unpretentious and easy to talk to. He smiled broadly and addressed you with ‘bro’ and ‘dude’, which was something everyone seems to remember of him. Jim asked questions about my background and we talked about the Middle East.

At the time, Western journalists were still able to slip in and out of northern Syria with relative safety. Jim had already done some reporting from inside Syria.

He was not your typical gung-ho journalist who was trying to make a name in the business. He was humble and cared about covering the people he was reporting on. There was a real sense of moral veracity about him. His videos from Aleppo depicted rawness of the war, but with integrity.

We chatted about the scant coverage of the conflict due to the extreme brutality on all sides, yet Jim mentioned that he was planning to go back soon. I was also interested in reporting from the region. I asked him about logistics of sneaking in and out of Syria in such turmoil. I reminded him that as an Iranian-American I could be a target if I don’t find the right fixers. I was excited about the possibility of covering the war with Jim and to use his experience to get there.

A couple of days later we met again at the Half King, a regular hangout for journalists. The bar is partially owned by Sebastian Junger, a former war correspondence and a close friend of the late Tim Hetherington. Hetherington was killed just a month earlier along with Chris Hondros in Libya, while Jim was in captivity.

I cornered Jim to talk about his travel plans again. I was really concerned about security issues crossing the boarder and a safe passage to Aleppo. He assured me to have the right connections and knew the right people to get us in. He noted that he was leaving soon and that I should let him know if I was really serious.

I never followed up with him. Frankly the death of Hetherington and Hondros was constantly on my mind. That night at Half King was the last time I talked to Jim.

From time to time I checked his reporting on GlobalPost, now part of PRI, until his disappearance on Thanksgiving Day of 2012. There was no news about his whereabouts even as his family worked tirelessly behind the scene to find him. Then ISIS released a propaganda video of his brutal death. Today the image of Jim’s execution is as recognizable as the events of 9/11.

I tried my best not to watch the video, but those images were everywhere. He was on his knees with his hands tied behind his back in the middle of a barren landscape. Jim was wearing an orange outfit given to him by his killers. His head was shaven. His smile was gone and he was clenching his teeth. Jim’s executioner, later nicknamed Jihadi John, stood next to him wearing a black ski mask wielding a knife at the camera.

It was devastating for anyone to witness those images. There was a total lack of humanity in that video. All I could think about was his family and loved ones. The next morning Jim’s photos were on the cover the New York Post and The Daily News. Both tabloids ran similar frames and the same headline “savages” in large font.

That day I was on my way to Columbia University to teach a photojournalism workshop at the school of journalism. I could see the bright orange colors of his outfit on every newsstand and deli counter. People held up the papers as they read the news in the subway. It was hard to avoid it. I was just as angry about this death as I was at the tabloids exploiting the heartbreaking news of a fellow journalist to sell more copies.

I arrived at my class shaken and holding back tears. Just before my lecture someone asked about the news. All I could do was not look at anyone’s face to avoid sobbing. I talked about how I met Jim and his passion for reporting from conflict zones.

I tried to use this miserable news as a teaching moment considering how vulgar it was for the tabloids to run his image on their front pages. By the time of Jim’s passing covering the Syrian conflict had become impossible. ISIS had established its de facto capital in Raqqah and over thirty Western journalists and aid workers were captured and held for ransom or execution. The only glimpse from inside of the war was coming from local activists and citizen journalists.

I talked to the class about how important it was to have people like Jim on front lines of these wars to provide unbiased and accurate reporting. I know Jim would have agreed with me, because he had said so himself.

In one of his last dispatches from Syria a month prior to his capture, Jim writes about the deteriorating conditions of the ancient city of Aleppo. Today with daily bombings on civilians in the rebel held neighborhoods of Aleppo the situation has worsened and the importance of independent reporting is even more significant.

Jim would have been 42 years old today.

Jim Foley was a participant of RISC Training, an organization that provides free first aid and battlefield training to freelance journalists. Please consider donating to RISC in his memory.