And just as they didn’t necessarily choose to go where the action was, they also didn’t necessarily get to choose whether or not to stay depending on the risk, which is another comparative luxury enjoyed by foreign war correspondents. As Judith Matloff noted in the Times Book Review this weekend, foreign correspondents engage in “a collective process involving editors and those on the ground” in evaluating the risks of getting a good war story. Matloff was writing about the work of Marie Colvin, an American journalist who accepted the risk—“‘Covering a war means going into places torn by chaos, destruction, death and pain, and trying to bear witness to that,’” Matloff quotes her as writing—and lost her life in Syria last year.
Of course, what drives foreign correspondents to war zones is often more complex than a compulsion to bear witness; particularly for freelancers, it can involve the same kinds of financial pressures Arif would have recognized. As the Italian journalist Francesca Borri memorably described in CJR this summer: “The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay.” And she also recognized longer-term economic motives at work for Western freelancers trying to make it in a war zone: “Really we are here just to get an award, to gain visibility.”
And sometimes, as Cooper and Borri can attest and Colvin no longer can, it works. But Arif’s journalistic motivations, revealed through our two-year correspondence, were more quotidian than that, even if vanity played its inevitable role. Really he was a curious person and a good writer who liked talking to people—the same qualities that motivate local journalists everywhere. I’m glad, in a way, that he lived amid violence just because that’s where his home was, and not to gain visibility. Because in the end, he didn’t get any.