Three years before his brutal murder by ISIS militants in Syria, journalist James Foley gave an incredible talk to students at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism that is definitely worth watching to get a sense of who he really was.
On June 2, 2011, Foley was invited to speak at his alma mater, which he graduated from in 2008, and he told his story of covering conflict, the allure of reporting from war zones, and what it was actually like to be captured in Libya, where he was previously held by Gaddafi forces for six weeks.
“Feeling like you survived something has this strange sort of force that you’re drawn back into,” Foley said of being in conflict zones where he continued to report from despite the danger. “There’s an amazing reach for humanity in these places, in these barren places.”
Foley started as a teacher with Teach for America in Arizona, only to change careers in 2007 when he enrolled in Medill’s masters program in journalism. Partly inspired by his brother, a U.S. Air Force officer who had served overseas in a combat zone, he went on to embed with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and later covered the wars in Libya and Syria.
“One thing about the embed, there’s always a screen … literally U.S. armour” separating the reporter from the population, he told the students. Unlike being with professionally trained soldiers operating from large bases, in Libya he embedded with the rebels, despite his editor at GlobalPost warning him not to go. “I had to go I guess,” he said.
In the video, which is more than one hour long, he describes what it was like to be captured (at 24:00). He was thrown in the back of a truck and his hands were bound, leaving him completely powerless. “They knew we were reporters,” Foley said, noting that his being captured because he was a journalist was a war crime.
Foley was imprisoned with a number of political prisoners who were anti-Gaddafi, an experience he said left him “forever changed.” He was not tortured, but he was beaten once and interrogated.
“You’re completely humbled. Completely powerless,” he said. “All you can do is pray to whatever you believe.”
Despite his harrowing ordeal, Foley was undeterred from going back to dangerous places. In his talk, which was little more than two weeks after he had been released from captivity in Libya, he answered the question of whether he would ever go back, saying, “I told my editor at GlobalPost, ‘I know this is crazy but I want to go back to Libya.'” He said his editor didn’t think it was crazy but said he needed some kind of closure.
“Conflict journalism is very important,” Foley said toward the end of his talk. “We need to know what’s going on in the world. We need to know the injustice. We need to know that most of the world is a dictatorship. Most of the world you cannot speak your mind. Most of the world there is no due process. We live in a pretty good place. … you realise that now. We can at least speak our mind about how we feel politically.”
As he finished answering student’s questions, he remembered his friends, family, and organisations such as Teach for America and GlobalPost who worked diligently to have him released from Gaddafi’s custody.
“In my darkest moments,” he said. “I still feel that love.”
You can watch the video below:
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