There are no more than a few dozen freelance journalists covering the Middle East. James Foley was one of the best and most respected among them.
His death is a reminder that freelancers covering conflict in the Middle East have lost not only a friend but a leader.
The freelancing world in the Middle East is small. Everyone knows everyone else. When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, dozens of journalists flocked to the region to cover the protests. We were a group of mostly 20-somethings who had moved overseas for various reasons, and found ourselves without a permanent staff job. Some had chosen to freelance, while others felt they had no other choice; media organizations were not hiring.
A group of us living in Cairo, which was then a hub for freelancers, was covering stories like human rights abuses, corruption, elections and prison torture across the Middle East and North Africa region. We were living cheaply in old apartments in downtown Cairo, sharing couch space as well as translators, fixers and food.
We were trying to navigate an immensely complex environment with the help and guidance of more experienced freelancers like Jim, who was about 10 years older than us and had covered conflict zones before as a freelancer.
Jim spent most of his time then in Libya, following rival militias vying for power after the revolution. Journalists were getting caught in the crossfire there, and renowned freelance photographer Tim Hetherington was killed in the spring of 2011 covering the civil war; Jim was kidnapped and detained by Libyan government forces. He was released six weeks later.
Despite what he had experienced in Libya and what journalists were beginning to face as result of covering the wars in the Middle East, he continued to report. We all did.
But Syria was a totally different terrain. It was unlike any other conflict we had reported on. At that time in Syria, everything was uncertain.
I talked to Jim about this when I met him in Antakya, Turkey, at the Liwan Hotel, in August 2012, just days before journalist Austin Tice went missing. The battle for Aleppo was just beginning. Things on the ground were fluid, Jim said, but as long as I was emotionally ready to make the trip, I would be fine. He explained, very calmly, what he had seen and felt during his last trip to Aleppo. He gave me advice on what to watch out for, who to trust, and when to get out. He was right.
I knew what I was getting myself into. I did not take the decision to go to Syria lightly. I spent days discussing it with family, friends and colleagues. But Jim made me feel better about my choice to go inside -- to get close enough to report the meaningful stories that were largely absent from mainstream media.
Unlike other reporters, most of whom were employed full-time as staffers with large media organizations, Jim never asked me why I chose to go into Syria: He knew my answer. He never once made me question my decision or my motivation. We had a mutual understanding, as did all of us at the time, that reporting in Syria was worth it. We weren't out chasing war, like many veteran journalists thought we were. We were doing what so many journalists had done before us: reporting the news in, yes, a dangerous environment, but from a conflict that had global significance and would for years to come. I left the next day to head to Aleppo, where I covered the war with a handful of other young freelancers. (One of them was later kidnapped and held hostage for months before being released earlier this year.)
Many news organizations were not sending their correspondents into the country. They said the situation was too fluid, too dangerous. Marie Colvin, a well-respected journalist writing for the Sunday Times, had been killed months earlier during an attack in Baba Amr.
No one wanted to take responsibility for us. We were liabilities, they told us.
A lot of people told me, and I am sure other freelancers who reported from dangerous places during this time heard the same thing, that I had a romanticized view of reporting from Syria. Very well-known, respected journalists told us we were "crazy" for doing what we did. I had editors sit across from me and tell me that they didn't respect me for what I had done.
The ironic thing, though, is that everyone took our stories from Syria, Jim's and mine and everybody else's.
News organizations didn’t have the funds to cover the costs of sending their correspondents into these places and keeping them safe. They relied on us instead. They relied on people like Jim.
Many freelancers who dispatched from places like Libya and Syria were later hired as staff, myself included. Jim, a freelancer to the end, was not, with all the risks this entailed.
In Syria, I didn't have someone to airlift me out if something went wrong, and I didn't have a team at home that could spend millions of dollars to get me out if I was caught somewhere. But I had the support of a group of freelance journalists who I knew would have my back if things went south. They would have been on the phones, knocking on doors, doing everything they could to get me out. They did that for Jim, even though it ultimately did not work out.
Jim made a speech in 2011 at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism that summed up the way we all felt, and in large part, still do feel.
"That's part of the problem with these conflicts. We're not close enough to it," he said then. "If we don't try to get really close to what these guys -- men, women, Americans, and now, with this Arab Revolution, young Arab men, Young Egyptians and Libyans -- are experiencing, you don't understand the world, essentially."