In Remembrance of Luke Somers’08
Luke Somers’08, a photojournalist who bore witness to the human drama in Yemen at a critical point in the country’s history, then shared it with the world, died Dec. 6, 2014, at age 33.
He was killed by Al-Qaeda captors during the second of two rescue attempts by U.S. forces in Yemen, according to the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, he was abducted by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while living and working as a photojournalist in Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen. He was held for 15 months along with a South African teacher who was also killed during the attempt to free both hostages. Many first learned of Luke’s plight when he appeared in an Internet video in early December, asking for his life to be spared.
At a Dec. 14 service held in Eaton Chapel, Luke was remembered as a gentle and thoughtful friend and a charismatic student who would stop by his professors’ offices just to chat about literature. According to English Professor Shawn Gillen, Luke wasn’t interested in talking about his grades but rather came with a book under his arm, hoping to discuss something he’d just read.
“Luke was a great student in both of my courses,” Gillen said. “Some students earn high grades and praise because they are in compliance with banal lists of course requirements and course goals. Luke, like many of our best students, was in it for something else.”
The service was live-streamed to accommodate Luke’s friends from around the globe, many of them in Yemen, where he was passionate about bringing the lives of Yemenis to the attention of people in the West.
Besides freelancing as a photographer, Luke had worked for the National Yemen newspaper in Sanaa and also translated for the National Dialogue, a 10-month-long conference that brought opposing political groups to the table to chart Yemen’s future. The BBC credited the forum with averting a civil war in the country at the time.
Luke was born Aug. 29, 1981, in London, England, and moved to California with his mother and brother at age 7. His curiosity about the world eventually led him to Beloit, where he majored in creative writing and spent two semesters studying abroad: one in Egypt, the other in Morocco. While on campus, he was known for quickly befriending many of Beloit’s international students.
His interests in the Middle East became evident while he was still a student. He applied for a Fulbright student award to go to Yemen, seeking to understand the impact of a planned highway on villagers. Although his proposal did not receive funding, he eventually traveled to Yemen independently, first as an English teacher and later as a photojournalist who found himself at ground zero during Yemen’s Arab Spring.
His photographs of ordinary Yemenis in extraordinary times appeared in newspapers and on websites around the world.
“I had the fortune to arrive in Sanaa Yemen in late February 2011 just as tents were being erected and rallying cries were growing loud and clear,” Luke wrote on his website. “I found myself within walking distance of the epicenter of a remarkable revolution in its earliest stages. Camera in hand, viewfinder to my eye, I took in much of what made 2011 a historic, tragic, and unforgettable year in Yemen. As sustained climaxes and hot bursts of emotion began to die down—and as the word revolution was heard with less frequency—I was presented with the opportunity to not only record but truly attempt to see more of the fascinating lives which surround me.”
Classmate Nigel Richards’08, one of several close friends who spoke at the Beloit service, said summarizing Luke’s life was a difficult task. “He refused to put himself or his life into easily understandable bite-size bits—for fun, but also out of discovery for the real truth, which I think he understood could be quite confusing.”
Professor Gillen compared the legacy of Luke’s photography to the intricate detail James Joyce captured in prose about the city of Dublin, Ireland. “Like Joyce, who left us an encyclopedic knowledge of Dublin in Ulysses, Luke, I believe, has created a photo archive of Yemen that will live well beyond our lives and become of great importance to that country’s people and history,” he said.
At the service, classmate Andrew Bartles’08 recited a passage from the Koran in Arabic, then added: “I hope we can build on the relationship that Luke began. That we can begin to live in a more peaceful world.”
Beloit has established the Luke Somers’08 Memorial Fund to provide financial assistance to students interested in studying abroad and enhancing their knowledge of the world. The fund will give preference to students interested in the people and cultures of the Middle East. An off-campus study photography competition, held among students annually at Beloit, is also being renamed to honor Luke Somers.