Corresponding With James Foley

The late journalist's goal was simple: making it.

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.”

“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.