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Confronting ‘Inescapable Truths’ of journalism amid conflict

On the 10th anniversary of journalist James Foley’s death, artist Bradley McCallum’s exhibition offers a chance for reflection
bradley mccallum
Artist Bradley McCallum’s exhibition “Inescapable Truths” honors the work and legacy of journalist and Northwestern alum James Foley on the 10th anniversary of his death. The exhibition is a series of mixed media artworks based on Foley’s reporting in Libya and Syria during 2011 and 2012. Photo by John Rodas

Conceptual artist Bradley McCallum wants the legacy of James Foley ’08 MSJ to be defined by his life and courageous work as a conflict journalist. During his career, Foley — Jim, to his friends — reported in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, giving Americans a window into the realities of war.

However, Foley’s life and work are sometimes overshadowed by his violent death at the hands of militants of the Islamic State group in August 2014, nearly two years after they kidnapped him while he was reporting in Syria.

McCallum remembers video of Foley’s execution spreading over the internet. “There was something about witnessing it that just felt wrong,” he said.

When the social justice-focused artist sought a new project in 2016, that memory came back to him. He reached out to Diane Foley, James’ mother and founder of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for U.S. citizens wrongfully detained abroad and educates and protects journalists and international travelers.

“Thinking about it from a cultural literacy point of view, how do we remember, how do we acknowledge, how do we reclaim someone's identity is what I think captured her interest,” McCallum said.

She agreed to allow the artist access to Foley’s unpublished b-roll footage, and the foundation awarded him a grant to begin work.

Now, on the 10th anniversary of Foley’s death, McCallum’s project has come to fruition with the exhibition “Inescapable Truths: James Foley’s Indelible Legacy,” a series of mixed media artworks based on Foley’s video footage covering civil wars in Libya and Syria during 2011 and 2012.

The exhibition opens April 3 on the fourth floor of University Library and the Dittmar Gallery inside Norris University Center, with an additional work inside the entrance of the library. An opening reception will be held that day, with an artist talk from McCallum and a poetry reading from Daniel Brock Johnson, a friend of Jim Foley and author of the poetry collection “Shadow Act: An Elegy for Journalist James Foley.”

“Inescapable Truths” will be on display at the library until June 14 and at the Dittmar Gallery until May 7. Additionally, two works will be on display during EXPO Chicago at Navy Pier April 11-14.

A layered perspective

A majority of the exhibition’s works are oil paintings with silk overlays that capture layered frames of Foley’s footage, lending the still images a sense of movement and multiple perspectives. The paintings range from under 2 feet by 3 feet to large-scale canvases that stretch more than 8 feet in length and almost seem to invite the viewer to step inside the scene.

Some depict scenes from the conflict, like “Exposed,” a 7-foot-tall diptych that shows rebels firing rounds with high-caliber machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Others capture the human toll of conflict, as in “Mother’s Lament,” which pictures a Syrian woman mourning her son.

A few works have sections of Foley’s handwritten notes superimposed over the images, like “Ruins,” which shows the decimated downtown area of Sirte, Libya, after the capture and killing of Muammar al-Qaddafi. On top of the cityscape is writing from a page of Foley’s journal that chronicles his first kidnapping and the 44 days he spent as a hostage in Libya in 2011.

Though some of McCallum’s work showed briefly in New York City prior to the pandemic, this is the first time the complete exhibition makes its debut with the incorporation of augmented reality (AR) videos.

The AR element allows viewers to use their smartphone to see short sections of Foley’s raw footage from the same day captured by the painting. With a tap, the work becomes a virtual screen, with the clips playing within the boundaries of the work’s frame.

For example, when a viewer trains their phone camera on “Ruins,” the image of the city fades to show video clips of rubble, bullet hole-ridden walls and bodies covered in white sheets.

McCallum hopes that engaging with the AR will create a “searing stamp” on a viewer’s memory that will inform how they see the painting and the moments it depicts.

“The viewer will be in Jim's shoes,” McCallum said. “You'll hear his voice, you'll see the movement of the camera, you'll see the dynamics that surround that day.”

Student collaboration

The exhibition has also been a hands-on learning opportunity for Northwestern students. Last fall, one section of the Knight News Innovation Laboratory’s studio class was devoted to curating the exhibition. The half-dozen students were tasked with crafting its narratives and finding the best way for audiences to engage with the physical art and AR.

For Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications second-year students Nora Rosenfeld and Arthi Venkatesh, the class and the exhibition encouraged them to think more deeply about what it means to be a journalist, as well as how new storytelling styles can engage audiences differently.

They hope that Foley’s story can be a reminder to viewers about the crucial role of conflict journalism and the importance of supporting and protecting those who do it.

“You wouldn't be seeing any of the footage that you've ever seen of a war if there wasn't a conflict journalist there,” Venkatesh said.

After the class ended, Rosenfeld and Venkatesh stayed on the project during the winter quarter, continuing to do curation and manage exhibition logistics.

The students used the decentralized space of the fourth-floor library corridors to tell Foley’s story, including background on the conflicts he covered, as well as reflections from his mother and the aim of the Foley Foundation.

“It's up to the viewer to engage more deeply with whatever they are most interested in,” Venkatesh said.

They also made sure to make spaces for viewers to decompress from the sometimes-challenging subjects and think about the themes they present.

“You're able to step back and reflect on the sacrifice that it took to be able to go and collect those stories and interview those people,” Rosenfeld said. “As someone who’s studying journalism, it makes me feel really proud to be going into that industry.”

Looking back and looking forward

“Inescapable Truths” owes its unusual exhibition space in the library to a cross-university collaborative effort to mark the anniversary of Foley’s death. Beyond the exhibition in both University Library and Norris, several other events will pay tribute to Foley’s legacy, including a book talk and signing by Diane Foley on April 25 and Medill’s annual ceremony honoring the winners of this year’s James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism on April 26.

Additionally, on April 27, Medill will host a symposium titled “Reporting in a Dangerous World,” with panels on journalist safety both in the U.S. and abroad, as well as a conversation between Medill Dean Charles Whitaker, Diane Foley and McCallum.

For his part, McCallum wants his exhibition and the anniversary to provide an opportunity to look back at the past and learn from it, especially when it comes to understanding the complexities and tolls of conflict and supporting the safety of journalists.

“My hope is that when people are looking at and experiencing the work, they'll be thinking about what's happening now and what are the lessons we can draw from Jim's experience that can deepen our appreciation for what it means to tell the most difficult stories as they unfold,” he said.