Corresponding With James Foley

The late journalist's goal was simple: making it.
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The last time I talked to Jim Foley was November 16, 2012, six days before he disappeared in Syria. It was on Gmail, the way I knew him best. As far as I can recall, I met Jim only once in person, in a café in Cairo, despite having known him since September 2009, when he left a comment on a Middle East news blog I had co-founded and asked whether my friend and I would be interested in publishing some of his work. 

Jim's comment initiated a correspondence that, without me quite noticing it, lasted three years, encompassing many emails. I was 24 when we first talked, living in San Francisco and hoping to find my way into a foreign-journalism world undergoing rapid deconstruction. Jim was older and had received a master’s degree one year earlier from Northwestern University’s journalism school, where I had received a bachelor’s degree in 2007. 

In those first days, we talked about how to survive as a self-funded—or more accurately, non-funded—journalist with a passion for the Middle East. Jim was someone who seemed to be making it happen. He had embedded with the Indiana National Guard in Iraq the year before and was planning to embed in Afghanistan in a month. 

His goal was the same as all of ours: to make it. It's a comment on the vicissitudes of the journalism industry that a guy like Jim ever had to “pitch” a kid like me to get a story published on a blog that didn’t pay and had only a small readership, but that's the way it was, and still is, and Jim approached it with the unflagging enthusiasm that seems to have been his trademark.

“My goal is to get as much experience as I can, cut my teeth [in Afghanistan], and try to increase my freelance contracts until I could land some kind of staff reporter position. It’s been difficult, as far as selling, but it sure is fun and being immersed in the environment provides a ton to write and photograph,” he wrote to me in 2009.

I was considering embedding in Afghanistan as a way to break into a career, and we talked logistics, the costs of flights, and how to stay safe. He told me that he didn’t own his own body armor—it was too expensive—so he had borrowed some from a friend. In the same way that the late Anthony Shadid was said to have opened his rolodex of sources to help young reporters, Jim eagerly assisted me, a potential competitor. 

When I landed in Qatar in July 2010 to work for Al Jazeera English, I messaged Jim, who was embedded in the Wardak province of Afghanistan. I was homesick and told him that when I had a minute, I wanted to ask him what it was like living most of his life abroad.

"Ok brother, please do," he wrote back.

We talked regularly about work and life—his in Afghanistan and mine in Qatar. On January 3, 2011, he wished me a happy New Year from the United States. He was excited about a new gig that came with the kind of benefits a freelancer couldn’t pass up: a 13-month contract to report in Afghanistan for Stars and Stripes

“Great news, off the freelance beat for a while,” I wrote.

“Yeah exactly,” he responded.

But we agreed that life as a foreign reporter wasn’t easy.

“Longer you stay in [the] States the more it seems like a good place to be,” he wrote. “[B]ut everyone else tells you how lucky you are for the opportunity to report internationally.”

Two months later, Jim was forced to resign from Stars and Stripes after the military caught him with a small amount of marijuana. The loss immediately threw him back into the freelancer world. A week later, he emailed me about finding work with Al Jazeera English. I was in Benghazi, covering the uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi.

“Dude I’m trying to get into Libya,” he wrote on Gchat.

We stayed in touch as he landed in Cairo and prepared to cross the border. He asked for advice on Internet access, making phone calls, and finding a fixer. One of the first things he wanted to know was the name of a good hotel in Tripoli, not yet realizing that a drive from the Egyptian border to the Libyan capital was impossible at the time: Qaddafi’s forces were in the way.

Nearly a month after entering the country, Jim and others were caught by regime troops near Brega, on the front line. South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl was shot dead just meters away from Jim, who would spend 44 days in captivity. According to the many accounts he gave later, the experience affected him deeply.

On May 28, 10 days after his release, he wrote to me and asked how he could contribute to efforts to free a Libyan stringer for Al Jazeera Arabic who had been arrested and held in a cell with him. He thanked me warmly for writing about his capture on social media, though I had only done the same as many other journalists. He said he was “amazed by the generosity of spirit all around.”

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Evan Hill is a former staff writer for Al Jazeera America.

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