The headlines about Yemen are dire. Civil war has put almost 7 million people on the brink of famine. The United Nations humanitarian chief says Yemen is in danger of "total social, economic and institutional collapse.”
For one Seattle-area family, their own loss is bound up in Yemen’s tumult. Luke Somers was abducted there in 2013 and held hostage by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He was killed during his attempted rescue by the U.S. government. Somers was 33.
His family hopes the photographs he took up until his abduction can still spark awareness and compassion for people caught up in the current disaster.
"You look at all these beautiful people, and you wonder where they are now," his brother Jordan Somers says.
Jordan Somers lives in Seattle; their mother Paula Somers lives near Gig Harbor. With a recent exhibit of his work at Seattle University, they said they were finally ready to pay tribute to his life and to the people of Yemen whose lives he chronicled.
“We don’t want him to be forgotten. We want to celebrate his life,” Paula Somers said. “We needed to do this. We couldn’t have done it before.”
Somers had both British and U.S. citizenship and traveled widely even as a young child. “A free spirit,” his mother recalled. Eventually his family landed in the Seattle area — Luke and Jordan attended Lindbergh High School in Renton.
After college Luke experimented with photography, and became even more devoted when he went to live in Yemen. He taught at an all-girls school, and in his spare time immersed himself in the life of the city of Sana’a.
“This was the onset of the Arab Spring; it was exploding all over the region,” Jordan Somers said. “He’d be walking down the street and there would be mass demonstrations.”
Luke gravitated to the people who set up tent camps to protest the government, his brother said.
“Luke was just in the midst of it all, so he was taking it all in and befriending people and photographing along the way,” Jordan said.
His talent in photography grew and he went to work for English-language newspapers in Yemen. Eventually his work was featured by the New York Times, the BBC and Al Jazeera. “His photographs are just so beautiful,” Paula said. “He learned so much as he was going along. And it was from his heart. He loved these people and it shows.”
Luke was abducted in September 2013. Jordan and Paula said it was impossible to get reliable information from anyone. Initially they obeyed instructions from U.S. government officials not to tell anyone what had happened. They learned after the fact that U.S. officials made an unsuccessful rescue attempt in November 2014.
Soon after, a video surfaced of Luke with his head shaved.
“This is when we threw the playbook out and started contacting anyone and everyone who could lend support in any kind of way,” Jordan Somers said. They thought they were making progress, building relationships that might lead to Luke’s release.
Then “we received a knock on the door and the FBI told us he was killed. They went in for a second raid attempt which again was unbeknownst to us, and resulted in the death of Luke and Pierre [Korkie], a South African man who was also being held as well as other people around the compound,” Jordan said.
They were devastated. Meanwhile, Yemen continued to deteriorate. The country is now dealing with famine and instability, and was included in the Trump Administration’s proposed travel ban.
“To say it’s gotten worse since then is quite the understatement,” Jordan Somers said. “People are virtually trapped there.”
They realized Luke's photographs could inspire compassion and understanding for the people there.
“To show Luke’s work — to show the beauty of the people of Yemen as seen through Luke’s eyes — just seems like a very important thing to do particularly at this point in time,” Jordan Somers said.
The exhibit was inspired by one of the brothers’ former high school teachers at Lindbergh High who assigned his students to work on an exhibition about the Middle East with a timeline of Luke's life. Luke’s photos were later included in a New York show by the Yemen Peace Project.
Paula said one of the hardest parts of organizing the Seattle University exhibition was editing down which photos to include. It’s an effort suffused with grief but also with hope that Luke’s work can still foster connections.
“Now is the time that we must show these photographs,” she said. “People deserve to see them.”
Lisa Willmer also contributed to this report.