Corresponding With James Foley

“I owe you a lot brother,” he wrote.

Reading that email recently, late at night, I found myself crying. Jim owed me nothing. If anything, I owed him. I looked at his generosity of spirit, and I felt mine lacking.

“Have you talked to Foley?” a Northwestern professor and mutual friend messaged me a few days after the email. “Dude is one of the most selfless people on Earth. … He’s apologizing to me for a misunderstanding between me and a friend of his. And asking how I am feeling. I’m like, dude, you were in captivity. Who cares about how I am.”

That November, I finally met Jim in Cairo. He was on his way out of Libya, having returned to the country to report. He was taller than I expected, bunched into the corner of a tiny, upscale shisha café in a posh district. I don’t remember the details of what we talked about, but I avoided the subject of his detention. I assumed he’d already spoken about it enough. I remember that he was warm.

By July 2012, Jim had begun freelancing from Syria. Our correspondence, much like it had two years earlier, revolved around logistics. I was wondering what it would take to freelance from the rebel-held north of the country (I never went) and Jim was eager to help. He was in Aleppo working for Global Post and Agence France Presse. As in Afghanistan, supplies were tight: He told me that AFP had yet to provide him with a BGAN—a small, portable satellite Internet machine.

Safety was deceptive in Syria, Jim said, and he could sense that radical forces were gaining strength. “Outside Islamists” were “embedding” in rebel units, he wrote. “They are pretty pissed at the West bc [they] see us as doing nothing, and reporters as representatives.”

In October, Jim messaged me and asked if I could tweet a link to a crowdfunded effort he had set up with other freelancers to buy an ambulance for the Dar al-Shifa Hospital in Aleppo, where they had spent time reporting. I told him how sad it was that such an effort would only be a drop in the bucket.

“Yeah exactly,” he wrote back. “Ambulance could get bombed or robbed along the way too ... drop.”

“But as you must know that hospital is real fucked up man,” he added. 

We talked about Austin Tice, a former U.S. Marine who had gone to Syria to freelance during a break in his studies at Georgetown Law School. Tice had disappeared that August. 

“I just go to bed sometimes imagining what he's going through,” Jim wrote.

In recent days, some writers and artists have lionized Jim and labeled him a hero. I’m not sure how he would take that. If it eases the pain for his family and friends, helps bring his killers to justice, or makes life safer for journalists in the future, then I suppose it is for the good. But to me, someone who caught at least a small slice of Jim’s life, he was like the rest of us: trying to make it. And that put him in harm’s way. 

Part of the sadness I feel about Jim’s murder flows from the thought that it could happen to many people I know, especially those freelancers forced by the profession to take the biggest risks. 

In other industries, there is talk of a shift toward a “gig economy.” This is already a common state of affairs in foreign journalism, and it comes as the Middle East is in a period of historic conflict, attracting ambitious writers, photographers, and videographers. Some major news organizations still have journalists on the ground in the region, and a small number of new outlets seem to be both hiring reporters abroad and giving them the support they need. A larger number give modest payouts per story to overstretched freelancers.

Signs of the change are abundant. In 1998, when the International Reporting Project began funding foreign reporting trips and academic training for mid-career journalists, the idea was that recipients would grow into star correspondents for their own outlets. Now, 60 percent of IRP fellows are freelancers, and the project’s model is focused on developing specific stories.

Some say that we’re actually living in a golden age of foreign reporting, with more voices than ever before. Perhaps they are right. But the new model comes with its own risks. 

The last message I received from Jim was mundane. I must have put a lyric by the rapper Kendrick Lamar in my Gchat away message, because Jim wrote, unprompted, to say how incredible he found Lamar’s latest album. Jim talked about Lamar’s earlier “lyrical promise” and how you could tell on first listen that the new album was “epic.”

I asked where he was. He said he was in the Idlib governorate, in the city of Binnish, and trying to go to Ma’arat al-Numan, farther south into Syria. The conversation trailed off, which often happened. We didn’t say goodbye. Six days later, armed men abducted Jim from a taxi outside Binnish. On or around August 19, he was killed.

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

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