Two men in the desert, front of camera: J.F. in a prisoner’s orange overall, head shaved, kneeling, apparently penitent; J.J., knife in (left) hand, face covered, swathed in black from head to….ankle, where Grim Reaper garb gives way to non-apocalyptic desert boots.
How did they get there?
J.F., a 40-year-old, photogenic video-journalist – facial bones like the young Iggy Pop, previously said he was drawn to conflict zones because, unless someone gets up close, ‘we can’t understand the world, essentially’.
In video footage of a Q&A session at his old journalism school (Medill), he does that a lot – that is, he makes a strong statement, then softens the sound of it with an adverb – ‘essentially’; likewise, the ‘prayers and cigarettes, basically’, that got him through a previous period of incarceration (Libya 2011), also in the hands of unreliable captors (teenage Gaddafi loyalists), who shot and killed a South African photographer immediately before taking J.F. into custody.
Describing him as ‘motivated’, J.F.’s father later said of his late son that doing this important job ‘gave him energy’.
During his talk to staff and students at Medill (ignoring the Milky Bar Kid who at the first mention of violence, smirks at the girl in the adjacent seat), J.F. remarks upon the‘reach for humanity’ readily discernible among the people he was reporting on.
He reports being inspired by them, but did they also serve as his surrogates? It is valid to ask whether other people’s war zones (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria) became a theatre of self-validation for J.F. He admits that writing fiction failed to fulfil the romantic idea of himself as a writer (please note, a particular kind of young American invests theword ‘writer’ with a special sort of significance); so he turned to reality rather than questions of realism.
Or perhaps he simply was the real thing: a reporter who finds himself by effacing himself in form; in formulating the external reality which we consequently have in common.
Standing next to J.F., the man, J.J., whose face is covered, is only here for show. He has no substance; only appearance. Originally (possibly) from south-east London, he joined IS – or ISIS as it was previously referred to – in search of a wider world where ‘ISIS’ means more than the latest line in Ann Summers lingerie (embarrassed marketers have explained that they came up with the name six months ago; but even then, there was enough on the news to prompt a re-think).
Yet however hard he tries for the vision thing, J.J. cannot escape himselfie. That is, self-centred self-presentation – look at me with my face covered and wonder what wondrous person I am – is all he IS.
‘J.F.’ stands for James Foley, the American video journalist beheaded on camera by ‘J.J.’, the Ethnic-Estuary-English-