James W. Foley was a student at the University of Massachusetts from 1999 to 2003, in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers in the English Department. Both while he was on our campus, and afterwards when he worked for Teach for America in Arizona and Chicago, he was dedicated to working in and with marginalized communities, helping students to widen their educational range and find their own voices. At UMass he volunteered at a local care center for unwed mothers, helping them earn their GEDs; both as teacher and journalist he was active in mentoring others. He worked on development projects in Iraq, and became an embedded journalist with the Indiana National Guard, and then with the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq, before becoming a freelance journalist working on the front lines in both Libya (where he was abducted and released) and in Syria. There he was kidnapped and ultimately executed in the most horrific and public way by the so-called Islamic State in August 2014. This campus, along with many others, mourned his loss deeply.
Our symposium was offered in memory of James Foley, to pay tribute to him by considering a range of issues that not only affected his life but have also impacted the lives of many around the world. Since 2001, if not before, we have been caught up in various forms of undeclared and undefined war. Both in the US and around the world we face a baffling array of developments which are hard to contain in any coherent form of understanding. We live in a context of shifting boundaries, large-scale movements of people, strange mixtures of enmity and belief, the unnerving event and its instant reproduction. What, in these circumstances, are the complex tasks of witnessing, of giving voice, of attempting to tell the truth? How do we see, how do we write, how do we report? How and where do we operate in the borderlands—both lived and conceptual—of encounter? What are the obligations of witnessing—and what are the dangers? How do we give voice to the otherwise unreported, to the unknown, to those whose voices would otherwise go unheard? How do we, as readers and viewers, witness atrocity? What, in short, are the tasks and perils of witnessing in our current world?
Funding for The Task of Witnessing comes from the Chancellor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; the Provost, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; College of Humanities and Fine Arts; College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; Interdisciplinary Studies Institute; Department of Journalism; Department of English; Department of History; Department of Communication; Commonwealth Honors College; Nexus, Mt Holyoke College; the Creative Writing Center, Amherst College; Department of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, Amherst College; and the Five College Lecture Fund.
For a radio interview on WAMC with ISI Director, Stephen Clingman, about 'The Task of Witnessing' symposium, click here.
The Art of Witnessing
Journalists on the Frontiers
Monday, 19 Sept. Integrative Learning Center S240.
7-9 pm Movie, Jim: The James Foley Story.
Discussion: Diane Foley, John Foley, Heather MacDonald
Moderator: Kathy Roberts Forde
Tuesday, 20 Sept. Bernie Dallas Room. Goodell Hall.
10:30-10:50 Symposium Opening and Welcome
Kumble R. Subbaswamy, Chancellor, University of Massachusetts Stephen Clingman, Director ISI
Martín Espada, poet, author of Vivas toThose Who Have Failed: ‘Ghazal For A Tall Boy From New Hampshire’
11:00-12.30 Panel 1: The Art of Witnessing
Diana Matar, photographer, author of Evidence
Maaza Mengiste, novelist and essayist, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze
Sabina Murray, writer, author of The Caprices and Valiant Gentlemen
Moderator: Jeff Parker
2:00-3.30 Panel 2: Journalists on the Frontiers
Ben Brody, photographer and war journalist
Beth Murphy, head of GroundTruth Films
Charles Sennott, journalist, founder of The GroundTruth Project
Moderator: Kathy Roberts Forde
Yago Cura, Tom Durkin, Daniel Johnson, Sejal Shah, Erin White
Noy Holland: The James W. Foley Prize
Moderator: Noy Holland
Martín Espada: A reading from James Foley’s MFA thesis, ‘The Cow Head Revelations’
Charles Sennott: A Journey of Remembrance
Moderator: Stephen Clingman
Beth Murphy heads GroundTruth Films, telling under-documented stories by producing award-winning films, digital media, and targeted public education campaigns. She founded the film and media company Principle Pictures, and she believes in the power of storytelling to understand our world and begin to make it a better place. Her work as producer, director, journalist, writer, and photographer focuses on human rights, equality and justice, and she is most driven to tell stories of those who are shining a light in some of the darkest corners of our world. Murphy has directed and produced nearly 20 documentary films (including the features “Beyond Belief,” “The List” and “What Tomorrow Brings”) that have screened at film festivals and aired on television networks globally. Her work as a multimedia producer, impact campaign director and author raises awareness and promotes action for issues and causes that demand social change.
Sabina Murray is the author of three novels and two story collections—the recent Tales of the New World, and The Caprices, which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute. She wrote the screenplay for the film Beautiful Country that was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and the Amanda Award (Norway). She teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A novel, Valiant Gentlemen, is forthcoming this November.
Charles M. Sennott is the Founder and Executive Director of The GroundTruth Project and the Co-founder of GlobalPost. He is an award-winning foreign correspondent, best-selling author and a seasoned editor with thirty years of experience in journalism. Sennott served as the Boston Globe’s Middle East Bureau Chief based in Jerusalem from 1997 to 2001, and as Europe Bureau Chief based in London from 2001 to 2005. Sennott’s deep experience reporting internationally led him to launch The GroundTruth Project and to dedicate himself to training the next generation of international journalists. He is an alumnus of the University of Massachusetts.