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Category: media

a lot of questions, no answers

The last time I talked to James was November 21st, 2012. The day before he was kidnapped.

It was midday Haiti time, evening Syria time, when he popped up on Skype — that moody pixelated avatar that looked like he’d snapped it in a foggy bathroom mirror.

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, Susana Ferreira wrote:
> homie. where you at? how are you?

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> Hey you!

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> what’s the word Doggg???

We’d met earlier that year when we participated in the first RISC training, an intensive medical course for freelance journalists, hosted by the Bronx Documentary Center. By day we’d learn about tourniquets, head trauma, spinal injuries, and shoved bloodied gauze into a plucked chicken as practice for packing wound cavities. By night we’d drink pints, eat greasy New York slices, and trade stories about our respective corners of the world. It was a great, friendly group of people, and I was in awe of the cross-section of talent, camaraderie, humility. On the last day of our training, April 20th, we gathered at The Half King on 23rd and 10th to toast the memories of two journalists who had died the year before in Libya, Tim Heatherington and Chris Hondros.

James had been to Libya. He’d been kidnapped in Libya, too, and watched as his friend, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, was killed by pro-Gaddafi forces and his body abandoned to the desert. He’d seen the ugliness of war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, too, but he didn’t carry that ugliness with him. He had a youthfulness to him, a tremendous light behind his eyes. Every other eulogy I’ve seen since the news broke makes mention of Jim’s lady-killing grin, but that giant smile started way up his face, behind his eyes. Then again, it could be that my memory is fuzzy — we’d been drinking the last time we crossed paths, after all. Most of my Blackberry photos from that night at The Half King are a gleeful mess, war reporters and photojournalists mugging goofily, flushed, caught mid-joke or mid-giggle.

I kept in touch with some of the extraordinary colleagues from the RISC training, but none more closely than James. He added me on Skype right away and we talked frequently over the next months as I went back to Haiti and he pinged between the States and the Middle East.

On 11/21/12, at 11:29 AM, James Foley wrote:
> I’m in Syria, just a had close call with a tank round yesterday so we pulled back to a safe town, nice to have a sunny day with no shelling

Our conversations often circled the same themes: we bemoaned the crap pay and lack of support we got as freelancers, laughed at ourselves for accepting that crap pay and lack of support with gusto, talked about upcoming assignments, enthused over dream assignments, made promises to move away from our respective regions and on to other parts of the world by year’s end, and lamented our mutual chronic indecisiveness in finding a next spot to settle. He wanted to keep bearing witness, but wondered aloud if it was time to step back from war. He forever downplayed his own discomforts and worried after my well-being to an extent I found comical, checking in post-Sandy or scolding me for getting dengue fever while he was the one wearing Kevlar, ears still ringing from nearby shell blasts. His regular pop-ups and pep talks were a comfort, they were motivating, often hilarious, and they were absolutely a blessing. Before we logged off for the last time, we talked again about a reunion in New York around the New Year. He’d be leaving Turkey and Syria by mid-December to spend the holidays with his family in New Hampshire, and I’d be flying to Toronto around that time for the same. A little freelancer career counseling and commiseration session back at The Half King was just what we needed to start 2013 and a year of fresh adventures off right.

James Foley is in the far back row, last on the left. Matt Power, wearing green and also in the far back to the right, passed in March. Photo by Ricky Flores.

A month later, as I wondered why his foggy avatar hadn’t popped up in so long, I found out from another journalist. Kidnapped. The new year started with a public countdown by the Foley family, marking the days since gunmen nabbed their son, their brother on his way back across the Turkish border with almost no trace and no news. The count ended yesterday, day 636.

I didn’t know James long, but I’ve felt his absence heavily. I can’t say how many times I tucked away an anecdote, usually about some goof-up I’d made, thinking: “When Jim comes back, I’ve got to tell him this.” I thought of him when I finally decided to move away from Haiti, wondering whether he’d be proud or laugh at me for dragging my feet for so long. I thought of him every time another journalist was kidnapped, or another journalist released. I thought of him as Syria spiraled, and I thought of him as ISIS rose up and swept through. When the headlines and stills from that video exploded across my timelines yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help searching the face in those images to see if it was really him. I have not and will not watch the video of his murder. I have a long list of questions about what happened to him during those 636 days, but I’m not sure I want to hear any answers right now.

I don’t know why I wrote this. It’s self-indulgent in a way that I’d normally find repellent — his kin and oldest friends could say so much more about Jim, the sound of his laugh, the flaws that made him infuriating and uniquely him, his goodness and humour and openness and curiosity. I suppose I just wanted to say something. That I feel grateful to have known him, even so briefly, and to have had his positive presence in my life during some trying months. That I admired and respected his commitment to following front lines, to documenting injustices, to bringing connection and friendship and light to some dark corners. I can’t tell him this any more, because I know now that his fuzzy blue avatar will never again pop up in a Skype chat, but I’m so glad James Foley existed.

Rest in power, homie.


you’ll never believe what happened

“We live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”

– Ben Okri

I’ve been thinking a lot these past two weeks or so about stories and storytellers, unreliable narrators, unreliable memories, and the purpose of conflict in a plot. An essay came out last week — maybe you saw? — about one person’s experience in Haiti that upset a number of people. I was one of them. Reading Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories has helped me understand my negative reaction. But we’ll get to King in a moment. First, that essay.

The crux of the piece is trauma and how one person dealt with it, but the context of Haiti (starting with graphs two and three, but really starting long before that) is what made many of us cry foul. I don’t need to reiterate why. The letter, which I did not write but supported enough to sign my name to, already covers these points.

I’ve been somewhat troubled by the sometimes vicious, mostly vapid back-and-forth on the topic. The arguments praising the author for being “brave”; the haughty, sneering references to her as a “parachute” journalist;  the claws-out attacks on the 36 signatories (among them, a highly respected Haitian author and several Haitian and foreign journalists, activists and researchers who have spent years or decades living in and writing about the country) for daring to question a victim of an ailment they likely have suffered from themselves; disputes over the veracity of the ugly Haitian context of the essay or whether the context even matters. Each side accuses the other of missing the point.

Also, I’m told that PTSD is a hot topic? And that calling someone a “liberal” is an insult? I wouldn’t know.

The point is not the trauma acquisition or recovery process. That is something personal. Everyone has a different threshold for this sort of thing, framed by their own upbringing, exposure to violence and relationship with pain, injustice, death. I’ve seen my friends break to pieces, lash out in anger, withdraw into themselves, drown their memories in alcohol and drugs. Many of them, to escape trauma, will simply occupy their minds with newer, fresher traumas, bouncing from difficult assignment to difficult assignment, layering horror upon horror. But the new images and stories and experiences don’t cancel out the old ones, do they?

(My own panic attacks and chest-gripping anxiety have subsided over the past several weeks, thanks in no small part to two passports, plane tickets, and a six hour time difference. Temporary exile, a luxury that is still accessible to me. I do have a support network, both on and off the island, but the back-home network, unless they’ve been in similar situations, often aren’t much help.

“You are so brave for going there,” they would say. It made me cringe, because there is absolutely nothing brave about it. Some of the people who expressed the most shock or admiration were Haitian friends who were either born in the diaspora or left as small children and never returned. The way they painted their motherland was stark. “You’re going to get kidnapped,” they told me, breathless, eyes wild with a brand of Ayiti paranoia I came to know well. “It is total anarchy. Please be careful.” And again, “you are so brave.”

We have strange ideas about what bravery is.)

Over a week later, I’m looking beyond the online fight-picking and feeling more thoughtful. I realize that, in part, my reaction is fed by frustration with so much of the shoddy, thoughtless, lazy journalism I watched pour out of Haiti in the first eight or nine months I spent there. Both parachute-jumpers and long-haulers have made bad judgement calls in how they describe Haiti, how they contextualize their stories, and in how they selectively — if at all — do their background homework. (I am not immune from this same criticism.) Countless journalists have published and aired stories that paint a Haiti that is far more dangerous and chaotic than it actually is. There are lots of examples. You have probably seen many of them, absorbed them, taken them as fact. I won’t even get into political coverage, or we’ll be here all night. There’s bad, sensational reporting everywhere, but Haiti seems to be spectacularly good at attracting this sort of thing.

I’ve been wondering through all of this, perhaps naively: what is the purpose of making Haiti sound worse than it is? Who benefits from making it come across as a war zone, or yes, a hellhole? Quite a lot of people, I would imagine. All of these stories mean something. They build something. People believe them. Each bad story props up the other, until a new, perceived version of Haiti is papered over the real one. Darkness.

In talking about stories, Thomas King starts by telling the one from which all the others spring: the creation myth. First, the story of the woman who fell from the sky. Second, the biblical creation story. He writes:

“So here are our choices: a world in which creation is a solitary, individual act or a world in which creation is a shared activity; a world that begins in harmony and slides toward chaos or a world that begins in chaos and moves toward harmony; a world marked by competition or a world determined by co-operation. And there’s the problem.”

From this central story, the one that frames our world and everything in it, stems the desire for dichotomies and battles. “We trust easy oppositions,” He says.

“Perhaps this is why we delight in telling stories about heroes battling the odds and the elements, rather than about the magic of seasonal change. Why we relish stories that lionize individuals who start at the bottom and fight their way to the top, rather than stories that frame these forms of competition as varying degrees of insanity. Why we tell our children that life is hard, when we could just as easily tell them that it is sweet. Is it our nature? Do the stories we tell reflect the world as it truly is, or did we simply start off with the wrong story?”

The desire for these masculine, arrow-shaped storylines [PDF] in our own lives — we are the heroes or heroines, pitted against a cast of cardboard villains — is problematic, it is dangerous, and it is very boring.

Perhaps this is what’s bothered me most. I am disappointed with these arguments because I am bored with the flat stories they are woven around. Bored with heroes, bored with villains, bored with black and white judgements, bored of these meaningless, echoing stories we absorb without question and then act out, me versus you, every day. It is so much easier to see a place like Haiti painted in ugly, unforgiving broad strokes than it is to contemplate it in shades of grey, orange, blue, red. It’s so much easier to choose sides in wars of personality. So much easier to enjoy conflict than to question its purpose in a plot. So much easier than challenging these stories. So much easier than telling, or listening, to new ones.

Ayiti yo pa vle wè a…

aweh, my ma se kind

It was the word “prawns” that first caught my attention. Stumbling sleepy somewhere around about 2 am on a frosty night in Newtown, I thought I must be hearing things. But then there it was again on their lips, praaawns. They wanted to hit another club just not that spot “with all them prawns and snakeskin pointyshoe n***as.” Heh heh heh. Instead we went to an all-night eatery across town, where tipsy patrons jumped up on the seats to lead a few rounds of Shosholoza, the day’s futbol games looping on corner TV screens. They tried to get me to sing too, but I didn’t know the words.

And so I sat and reflected on why I was back in South Africa. On prawns and makwerekweres, the origins of idle hatred, living frustrations, bodies and borders, the chasms between us, and how far one person has to be pushed before they feel the need to break their brother.

I spent the past five weeks or so traveling from one end of South Africa to the other. The N1 highway starts in Beit Bridge, where Mzansi touches Zimbabwe, and ends 1,929 km later in Cape Town, bending toward the mingling Indian and South Atlantic oceans. The N1 is where the story starts for a lot of foreign nationals in the country. They cross the Limpopo river, by bridge or bush, and the N1 is on their lips. That’s the road that will take them to Joburg, jobs, a different life. It’s also the road on their minds when they look for a way out. An escape from harassment, from threats, and from the promise of violence. The N1 goes both ways.

I was lucky enough to work on this project alongside my wildly talented friend Dominic Nahr (fresh from a Magnum Photo nomination! Yea!), and am deeply indebted to the support of the Pulitzer Center in DC. Our first Pulitzer Center blog post from the northern border is here, with more dispatches appearing here as they come. It’s worth poking around my twitter for updates too.

I still have piles of interviews, notes and audio to go through and Dom has such striking photos to share, so please do check back in. This is an important story. It’s not about spoiling any Black Star-inspired unity myth, not about simple racism or throwing blame or a jobs-and-housing cause and effect formula. It’s the most human of stories: about movement, the tugging and shoving of bodies. It’s about skeletons from the past and a crisis of poverty. It’s about being at a breaking point — just before you, or your entire world, explodes.


Hello, here’s this week’s New Yorker cover:

An extension of pound-gate (please don’t call it a fist-bump), secretly-muslim-gate, Osama-Obama-ethnic-names-all-sound-alike-gate, and patriotism-gate, all boiled into one illustration. Tasteless? Cowardly? Sure, maybe. I see what Barry Blitt was trying to do with “The Politics of Fear” — take a swipe at the outrageous smears and apprehensions carried by those who oppose the presidential hopeful. I don’t want to argue over how appropriate or inappropriate his attempt is. That was yesterday.

What I want to talk about is Michelle Obama’s hair. Everything else in the illustration — the garb, the burning flag, the bin Laden portrait over the mantle — have their root in some public scandal or Fox News special. But unless Bill O’Reilly started a rumor somewhere about her wearing a wig (made from the threads of Rachel Ray’s kaffiyah), I haven’t heard a thing in mainstream media about her hair.

Her hair, typically styled in a relaxed bob, is up and out here in a full, thick afro. Or, as Brian Lehrer just called it on WNYC, “Angela Davis hair!”

Is this the appropriate way to wear one’s hair while carrying an AK? Is this terrorist hair, befitting a terrorist wife? Is this really scary? Is this really 2008? Blitt made a decision at some point that the straightened, Jackie O bob was not interesting enough for his illustration, and that it didn’t fit his message. I wonder if there’s an early draft somewhere of her wearing a hijab.

essentials, credentials

I’d like to step up the pace, if you don’t mind.

Tourists in plastic blue rain slickers were lined up on both sides of the falls, waiting for their ride on a Maid of the Mist, and it wasn’t even noon yet. Crossing the border at Niagara is so much nicer than crossing through Buffalo, and not only for the view from the Rainbow Bridge. The Homeland Security folks here are so much gentler than their Peace Bridge counterparts, probably softened from years of dealing with day-trippers and blue slicker-clad families. Our entire bus was in and out, passports stamped, in about five minutes. I stuck behind a minute longer to have my papers signed and answer the standard questions.

“Where you going?”
New York.

It was the close to a refreshing, ful-filling week in Toronto. I biked for days. Bumped into familiar faces. Picked up some magazines, some music, some stories. Caught up on the Globe and Mail, and I don’t think I’d ever noticed so many American references in their pages before. The Walrus and Maisonneuve are one thing — they’ve always been in love with New York and DC stories — but the last thing I wanted to do was read a New Yorker’s perspective on Toronto in a Canadian newspaper. Really now? I haven’t been paying close attention, but I’m certainly not the only person rolling their eyes at the Globe’s behavio(u)r. I’m far better versed on this sin of Watching The Elephant As It Sleeps as manifested in the arts, and it is no less wack in a rap song.

But, back to the border.

While officer Cavelli processed my visa documents, I seized a rare opportunity to actually have a conversation with Homeland Security.

“Have you heard of a show called ‘Border Security USA’?”
Yeah, he knew it. ABC was behind it.
“Have they ever filmed here?”

I was expecting a no, but it turned out that a camera crew had come around twice already, in February and again during Memorial weekend. I read about the new reality show just last week, and was secretly hoping to cross paths with them when I hit the border. Here’s a whet:

The security agents depicted in the show stop a wide range of criminal behavior. In one episode, customs finds a human skull shipped through the mail. In another, a Coast Guard boat chases cocaine smugglers.

Yet it’s the show’s depiction of the government’s post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts that’s bound to draw the most attention. In one story, two young men of Iranian descent are denied entry into the country when one is found to have relatives with ties to a terrorist organization and the other carries a fake ID.

“That’s (the agents’) No. 1 mission: to protect the country from terrorists and from terrorist materials, such as bombs,” Shapiro said. “We haven’t been there with a camera when an actual terrorist has been caught, but we’ve seen a few people not admitted because they’re on watch lists. Nobody wants to be the officer who lets in the next terrorist.”


Shapiro said “Border” will tell “the other side of the story.”

“I love investigative journalism, but that’s not what we’re doing,” he said. “This show is heartening. It makes you feel good about these people who are doing their best to protect us.”

I can’t imagine that the Rainbow Bridge, locale of cascading waterfalls and funnel cakes, will get much screen time on this feel-good, head-knocking reality series. I’ll have to wait to watch the show myself, but I’m willing to bet that Border Security USA’s camera crews are more keen on shooting Suspicious-Looking Brown Folks, especially Brown Folks Who Look Like They Might Possibly Once Have Met Someone With Ties To Terrorist Organizations. I wonder who is supposed to feel good about this, and why it makes them feel good. Is it different from the feeling you get when you help someone? Or when you bake a really amazing cake? Or when the new Pharaoh Monch record finally comes out and it doesn’t suck?

I wonder, too, how the timing of this show — set to air in the fall — will interact with the presidential campaign. Immigration, terrorism, the culture of fear, the myth of The Enemy, and the protection of the empire are all very big, enormously sensitive elements in this game.

Cavelli didn’t mention that the camera crews would be back, and I didn’t ask. He wasn’t around on the days they were shooting anyway, he said, but I couldn’t tell if he was lying. He shuffled a few more papers, looked me in the eye, and said,

“Sorry, we can’t admit you today, you’re not authorized to cross.”

Then he cracked a smile, laughed the way Homeland Security officers always laugh when they make their favo(u)rite joke, and told me to be on my way.