Photojournalists need people skills.
Judging by the photos Luke Somers made, he had plenty.
“He had this very authentic openness that allowed him to approach anybody,” brother Jordan Somers said.
“He was always curious about people,” his mother, Paula Somers, said. “He would get to know them.”
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That’s what he was doing in Yemen, the country he had lived and worked in for over two years before he was taken hostage by al-Qaeda in 2013. He died 14 months later, at age 33, in a commando raid designed to free him, ordered by President Barack Obama.
His family prefers to remember him as he was: a compassionate young man curious about other cultures, even if they were in his backyard.
“He would strike up conversations with people who were homeless or give them his last couple dollars in his pocket,” Jordan said of walks he took with Luke around Seattle.
It’s in Seattle where a show of Luke’s photography from Yemen will be on display Saturday through Monday. The show, at Seattle University, celebrates Luke’s life and the connections he made in Yemen.
It also shows a side of Yemen that’s seldom seen.
Today, after two years of warfare, Yemen is devastated. Half of its 25 million people are facing famine and the majority don’t have access to clean water or sanitation, according to the United Nations.
“The situation is nothing short of catastrophic,” Robert Mardini of the International Committee of the Red Cross told the BBC this week. He had just returned from the country.
“Luke, from the get-go, had more of an open awareness of how the world worked, beyond just America,” Jordan said.
Somers spent the first seven years of his life in London and visited Tunisia, Greece and Turkey while in Europe.
“That built his interest in wanting to go abroad,” Jordan said.
Paula, a California native, moved back to the U.S. with her two boys, eventually settling in Renton to be a court reporter. For the past decade, she’s lived on the Key Peninsula.
From the beginning, Luke was a determined boy with a take-charge attitude, she said.
“I wasn’t getting enough jobs as a court reporter, and Luke took it upon himself to call up my boss and have a chat with her,” she said.
Luke graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin, with a creative writing degree in 2008. While there, he visited Egypt and Morocco.
“That really opened his eyes to the Middle East,” Jordan said.
Somers tried his hand at fishing in Alaska, as a curator for a plasticized human bodies exhibit and as an assistant for a Wisconsin writer living in an off-the-grid cabin.
“Where ever he was, that’s where he was,” Jordan said.
In early 2010, Luke took a trip to Jamaica with Paula. Smitten by the island nation, Luke returned that summer to volunteer at the TrenchTown Reading Centre.
“He had a large friend base there, lots of relationships and had planned to return to Jamaica,” Jordan said. “Jamaica was a place he called home.”
Jamaica is where Luke taught himself photojournalism.
“He was a natural at it, just a wonderful eye,” Jordan said.
Somers went to Yemen in February 2011 to teach English.
Paula knew the country could be dangerous but she supported his decision.
“I never allowed myself to have any negative feelings that something bad might happen, I couldn’t,” Paula recalled.
“Luke would reassure me from time to time that he wasn’t doing anything crazy or stupid,” Jordan said.
Within six months he gave up teaching.
“He couldn’t do both, he was up all night (working on photography)” Paula said.
Eventually, he was offered a job at the Yemen Times.
Somers wasn’t just interested in postcard views. He traveled to the Yemeni port city of Aden to photograph Somali refugees.
“He documented things you wouldn’t see: women’s bowling tournaments, makeshift clinics for malnourished children,” Jordan said.
During the more than two years he spent there before his kidnapping he built many close relationships.
“He was friends with everyone there,” Paula said.
He saw Yemen from their perspective.
News media, even then, focused only on Yemen’s negative aspects, Jordan said.
“Luke saw beyond that,” Jordan said. “It was relationships, hospitality, intense discussions, beautiful architecture, food, history.
“He might as well have been a local, the way he carried himself,” Jordan said.
After two years, Luke was ready to come home.
“Of the myriad painful things to think about, Luke was in the process of getting his bags packed to come home,” Jordan said.
His return home was delayed when he got a job at the National Dialogue Conference in 2013. The talks, brokered by the United Nations, brought rival political, tribal and religious groups together to create a new political system.
Luke worked as a copy editor and shot photos. It was steady pay.
On the side he would submit his photos to the BBC, The New York Times, Al Jazeera and other organizations.
“We thought he’d be home by Thanksgiving of 2013,” Paula said.
On Sept. 22, 2013, Paula arrived at her Key Peninsula home to find messages from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. embassy in Yemen and others.
Luke was missing.
Four FBI agents showed up at her door the next day.
The FBI said that Luke had been taken by armed men while he was exiting a Yemeni grocery store a few days earlier.
“They said he was probably abducted by tribesmen, which is fairly common in Yemen,” Jordan said.
That gave them some hope as tribesmen were generally hospitable toward their abductees.
The first sign that Luke was alive came eight months after his abduction when a video was given to the FBI.
“There’s Luke looking a bit disheveled but alright,” Jordan said.
The Somers family pleaded for Luke’s life in private letters.
“In the meantime, (the FBI) would tell us not to trust anyone,” Jordan said. “Don’t trust journalists, don’t talk to friends. You don’t want any word to get out. You don’t want to rattle the captors.
“They kept us in a tight grip, using that over and over again,” Jordan said.
“If we had known more we would have been trying more to get something done,” Paula said.
What they also didn’t know was that al-Qaeda was holding Luke.
In September 2014, the family made videos in which they asked for mercy and spoke of Luke’s love of Yemen.
“It was a painstaking day, all day at my mom’s place,” Jordan recalled.
In early November, a video of Luke came out.
“He looked great,” Paula said.
Two weeks later, Jordan read of a failed U.S. raid in Yemen. The FBI assured them it had nothing to do with Luke.
But it had been an attempt to free Luke. His captors had moved him just before the raid.
“We couldn’t help think that his life was in greater danger,” Jordan said.
In December 2014, al-Qaeda’s name was first mentioned when a new video came out, threatening Luke’s life.
“Of course, we freaked out,” Jordan said. “We threw out the whole playbook of working with the government.”
The family put out more videos and worked with reporters.
They were set to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the White House.
“But, ultimately, the FBI showed up at our door and said Luke was killed in a failed rescue attempt,” Jordan said.
On Dec. 5, U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 commandos had approached the compound where Luke and another hostage, South African teacher Pierre Korkie, were being held.
Before they could rescue the pair, the commandos were detected. The captors shot the two men. Despite medical treatment, both men died.
The photos in this weekend’s show were all taken by Luke in Yemen. Jordan calls it Yemen through Luke’s eyes.
“It’s humanizing the country and the people and the culture,” Jordan said. “Which is something that Luke knew and was very, very fond of.”
Paula and Jordan said they were too grief-stricken to organize anything before now.
They were inspired after Lindbergh High School teacher Jef Rettman organized a photo show with Luke’s work and the work of his students. Rettman taught both Somers brothers.
Another exhibit was held by The Yemen Peace Project in New York City. That show was attended by many who knew Luke in Yemen.
“We got to be in the presence of loved ones,” Jordan said.
The family wants Luke’s work and the positive effects he made in Yemen to live on.
“It’s all about ripple effects, in my eyes,” Jordan said. “The ripples that Luke caused in Yemen.
“A Westerner goes over to that country and he’s completely embraced in that culture, living in a tent city where protesters are living for months and months, and this is potentially the first Westerner they’ve communicated with,” Jordan said.
Luke turned those contacts into friends and family, he said.
“To bridge that gap with people who would otherwise see America in a completely different light is as important as it gets.”
LUKE SOMERS PHOTO EXHIBIT
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday-Monday
Where: Seattle University’s Casey Building, 901 12th Ave. Seattle