After traveling the world as a war photographer, Indy's Bill Foley has come home
Indianapolis is digging out from under a major winter storm. From the café where he sits, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Bill Foley sees blue sky and streets choked with snow. “The light is nice,” he says. “It’s going to be nicer later — it’s a little hard right now, a little contrasty.”
Foley grew up in Indianapolis, went to Shortridge High School and Indiana University before embarking on a career that took him on assignments to more than 47 countries. “Central to his career,” according to the summary that opens his resume, “has been his coverage of intense conflict and human tragedy in the Middle East and Eastern Europe …”
“The last time I was here for a blizzard was ’78,” Foley says now. “I photographed it for AP. I was out with a Channel 8 crew in a four-wheel drive on I-65. Guys were stuck in their cars. It was amazing. Nobody moved for days.”
Slender, with pale blue eyes and a close-cropped white beard, stories practically tumble from Foley. He’s living in Indianapolis again. Next fall he’ll begin teaching at Marian College, where a show of his work is currently on exhibit .
“Complete serendipity” is how he describes his discovery of photography while majoring in chemistry at IU. “I didn’t know dirt about photography.”
The friend of a roommate had a German camera she wanted to sell for $50 — a lot of money in those days. But Foley scraped together the cash and soon was shooting pictures for the IU student paper. Then he started freelancing for AP and UPI. During the summer of 1976, he got an internship with the Cincinnati Enquirer photo staff. It turned out to be the season that the Cincinnati Reds, the Big Red Machine, won the World Series. “I had my summer in the dugout with Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench and all those guys. It was a hoot.”
After kicking around the West Coast, trying to land a job, Foley returned to Indianapolis and freelanced for a while. Channel 8 gave him carte blanche at Hoosier Photo and 24-hour access to a darkroom. In 1978, he shot the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500 for AP. But he wanted to travel.
Foley bought a $99, one-way ticket to Amsterdam and eventually found his way to London, where he showed his portfolio to the AP’s photo editor, Horst Faas. Faas was a legendary figure, a two-time Pulitzer winner whose combat photography in Southeast Asia was famous. “He saw one half of one photo,” Foley recalls, “and says, ‘You want to go to Cairo?’ I went to Cairo.”
“When you’re 22, 23, 24, you’ll do anything. You’ll go anywhere,” Foley says. “You’re immortal, invincible. I was a complete adrenalin junkie.”
Foley’s posting to Cairo would put him in the thick of some of the world’s most violent places. In the process, Foley’s photojournalism would be nominated for Pulitzers — journalism’s highest honor — three times, in 1982, 1983 and 1984 for Spot News Photography. His series documenting the Sabra and Chatilla Massacre, where hundreds of Palestinian refugees were slaughtered by Christian militiamen, garnered the award in 1983.
“I’ve been arrested and beaten up by Syrians, Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians and I’m here to tell the story because in those days people didn’t just blow your brains out,” Foley says, adding that he wouldn’t dare cover the current war in Iraq because the contemporary rules of engagement would make it tantamount to suicide.
He tells of how he and a fellow photographer were once picked up in Lebanon while on an assignment to find the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yassir Arafat. “We got stopped at a Syrian checkpoint. And this guy who set the theory of evolution back 3,000 years said, ‘Oh. Spies.’”
Foley was carrying a digital light meter set to ASA 400. In the bright sunshine, it read F-16. “So the guy is convinced I’m talking to Israeli F-16 fighter planes. They start beating our driver, beating us. They take our gear and throw it all over the road.”
Foley and his two companions were tied up with wire, put in the back of a car and driven halfway to Tripoli on a mountain road, only to be stopped at another checkpoint. “This guy grabs me and drags me out of the car and hits me across the face. At that point, the guy who started the whole thing hits him and says, ‘Nobody hits him but me.’”
Eventually they got to Tripoli, where an officer took one look at their papers and released them.
“In today’s world, in Iraq,” Foley says, “forget it. I was arrested by the Popular Front for the liberation of Palestine in 1981 in south Lebanon with two guys from the New York Times, a guy from the Washington Post and a guy with Newsweek. We were held for 24 hours, but we were released.”
Asked why he kept putting himself in harm’s way, Foley shrugs. “The story’s not going to go away. The pictures aren’t going to go away because you leave. So you stick around.
“One of the things that I’ve tried to do is not be part of the problem. I’ve tried, with my images, to improve things.” Foley knows, for example, that his pictures of the Sabra and Chatilla massacre caused the multinational peace-keeping force to be brought back to Beirut.
“Some have said you’re not doing anything for people. You’re just taking pictures of people dying,” Foley says. “I don’t think that’s true. I think there are people out there who maybe don’t have the best motivation in the world, but information really helps.”
The big picture
The rules of engagement in war zones isn’t the only thing about photojournalism that’s changed in the years since Bill Foley started traveling the world. Digital technology, he says, “has changed everything.”
“There’s no context anymore,” says Foley of the way that instant images have transformed the news business. “There’s no ability for somebody to have a moment to think about what they’re writing or shooting before they send it off to the world. In the old days, when we processed film, I carried a darkroom around the Middle East. Covering the Iran-Iraq war, I’d set up a darkroom in my hotel room in Baghdad, go to the front, come back and take a day to process and print the film and wire it to Tokyo. You had time to realize what you saw and where you were. Now, with satellite phones and digital whatever, you don’t have any time to think about the big picture.
“Nothing happens in a vacuum. If you don’t know what the big picture is, how can you write a story or take pictures that make any sense? I was there to document stories, to tell people’s stories, and in those days, when you were processing film or shipping film you had time to think about your captions, to think about which image in a roll of film was the most important picture for the wire that day. Which one told the story.
“It was a great thing. It was a great time to be out there. It’s a completely different world now.”
Foley finds that the sheer number of images available today is also part of the problem. He was one of the first journalists allowed to walk through the wreckage after the Marine barracks were blown up in Beirut in 1983. Shortly before it happened, journalists there had a color darkroom installed — the first in the city. In the initial 24 hours after the barracks were bombed, Foley and his colleagues moved just 45 black and white and color images around the world. The black and white images took 15 minutes each to send, color images, requiring three separations, took 45 minutes apiece.
“Images that grab you still have power,” Foley says, “the problem is going through all the images available. I think there are fewer iconic images because there are so many. It’s harder to figure out which image is going to stay with your memory. In the olden days, you could say, ‘I remember the guy crying at Kennedy’s funeral, Connelly’s wife wiping blood off in the car.’ Now what do you remember? Name me two pictures from the last week that grabbed you.”
Since returning to his hometown, Foley has begun turning his camera on the local scene. “I’ve discovered what I call Leave No Cornfield Undeveloped,” he says. Foley is fascinated by the places where rampaging suburbanization has bumped up against the traditional landscape. Recently, he found a real estate sign advertising “Waterfront Condos” in what still looked like a farmer’s field.
“It’s been interesting to see how fast things have changed,” Foley observes, “and how much better things are on a number of levels.”
Foley continues to work with corporate clients and nonprofit organizations. In just the past few years he has completed projects for the Quitman School, an inner city school in Newark, N.J.; documented children, adults and families with ADD/ADHD and bi-polar disorders at the Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health in New York City; produced a book for the Columbia University Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry on children’s mental health issues; and documented the changes on one block in Harlem over a five-year span, which became a book called Renewing a Block in Harlem — The Carmel Hill Project, as well as an exhibit of 50 prints for the Museum of the City of New York.
Foley also continues to pursue other areas associated with his body of work: photography for film and television shows, teaching and portraiture.
Foley has shot photo sessions for studio posters, advertisements and other promotional materials for over 27 feature films and TV programs, including The Siege with Denzel Washington, I Shot Andy Warhol, Spin City and The Out of Towners with Steve Martin, John Cleese and Goldie Hawn. Foley calls this “going from documenting reality to documenting unreality … It’s such an unreal atmosphere. People think it’s glamorous being on a set, but it’s like watching paint dry. Moments of frantic activity and hours of setting up, doing nothing.”
Foley is looking forward to getting back into teaching, a branch of his career he practiced most recently at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University between 2000 and 2005. “I’ve always enjoyed photography and I’ve always enjoyed people.”
He has also been working on a series of portraits. Respect Your Elders is the working title for Foley’s current project, which focuses on older people, some of whom Foley has recently met and others he has known for years.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time with older people,” he says. “One of the things about society is that it’s all about youth. It’s all about sexier, faster, thinner, better. You can learn a lot from people who have been around the block.”
The key to making portraits, Foley says, as in all photography, is paying attention. “Portraits are paying attention. Thinking about who you’re photographing. Thinking about how you’re going to photograph them. And another thing: It’s all in the light.”