Ed. note: Chicago writer Rod O'Connor interviewed journalist James Foley in 2011 for a Time Out Chicago cover story on Chicagoans reporting on the front lines. On the heels of Foley's reported death at the hands of ISIS, O'Connor recounts meeting him below.
When I interviewed journalist James Foley three years ago, I sensed a struggle inside him. This was just a few months after his 44-day captivity in Libya during that country’s rebel uprising, and he was truly thankful he had made it out alive. He was easy to talk to. I recall him laughing often. He seemed to appreciate the fact that he had dodged a bullet.
But two things tore him up: One was the fact that Anton Hammerl, one of the photographers he was with in Libya, wasn’t so lucky, having been struck down by gunfire from Gadhafi’s forces while their group was being captured. The other was the anguish he had put his family through while he was missing. In light of the recent news, it appears Foley’s family has suffered something far worse.
I recall asking him if he had learned any lessons from Sebastian Junger, the author of A Perfect Storm and a celebrated war-zone reporter, who had publicly quit covering conflicts earlier that year after a colleague, the New York–based photojournalist Tim Hetherington, was also killed in Libya. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Junger said that, after his friend’s death and seeing the toll it took on Hetherington’s wife, war reporting felt like “a selfish endeavor.”
“Will you be going back?” I asked Foley. “Do you agree that it’s inherently a selfish act? Or is it a call of duty, a sacrifice required by some for the greater good, like military service?”
“This is kind of a selfish act when you have loved ones at home,” he said. “And I think this is a changing event for me. … For me to go back and try to get to the front line for a story after somebody died and you see a family in so much anguish, it’s irresponsible, you know? You just realize how freakin’ short life is. I mean, it feels like a tremendous waste. And to operate in the same way [I did], I think, is selfish.
“And I think there are ways to do it safely. But at the same time, for me to go back out there after what I put my family through and Anton dying, such a generous, professional man, is insane, you know? I can’t imagine putting them through that again.
“But I do love conflict reporting, and I think it’s important,” he said, ultimately settling on his answer. “I’ll be back out there. But I’ll be taking a much slower, wiser approach.”
Just a few months after we spoke, Foley was back in Libya to cover the fall of Gadhafi. And a little more than a year after that, he was reportedly kidnapped again, this time by the Islamist State near the Syrian town of Taftanaz, while on assignment. During our interview, he said covering the civil war in Libya was “too good to pass up,” meaning, there were so many stories that needed to be told. I’m sure he felt the same way about Syria.
Reportedly, Foley was traveling with a security detail in Syria. But it doesn’t matter how wise you think you are operating, no precautions can protect you from work that dangerous.
On Facebook, Foley’s mother, Diane, lauded her son’s bravery “for trying to expose to the world the suffering of the Syrian people.” Maybe it’s time that reporters who put their lives on the line in conflict zones start getting standing ovations in airports like our men and women in uniform. I can’t imagine doing the job that Foley chose to do. But I’m thankful some people have the balls to.
I remember Foley lamenting that, if he hadn’t been captured in Libya, he could have revealed more stories about what was happening on the ground—rather than he himself being the story. I’m guessing that’s what might bother Foley the most about his apparent death by radicals. Instead of reading stories by reporters like him, we’re all consumed by his story.