The Rachel Corrie Foundation is honored to present the photography exhibit, “A Day in the Life of Yemen”, showcasing the work of the late photojournalist Luke Somers for the month of September 2018 at the Capitol Theater (206 5th Ave SE, Olympia, WA 98501) in partnership with the Olympia Film Society. The exhibit is open to ticket-holding guests of the theater.
In addition to the month-long display, Luke’s family members will be in attendance at the 2018 Peace Works: Middle Eastern Film Festival to meet community members and answer questions about Luke and his work.
About Luke Somers
Luke Somers, a British-born American freelance photographic journalist and resident of Yemen, was killed in a failed raid attempt in December 2014, one year and three months after his abduction by armed tribesmen. Luke arrived in Sana’a, Yemen in 2011 as an English teacher; and, although revered by his students and colleagues, Luke began to shift gears into photojournalism, bearing witness to the visceral realities – both bleak and inspiring – of the country, as well as the cultural phenomena of the Arab Spring as it swept through the region.
As time unraveled, Luke became a full-time freelance journalist who worked for several Yemeni newspaper outlets throughout Sana’a, including National Yemen and Yemen Times. In the process, Luke began submitting photo essays to prestigious news organizations, including The New York Times, Al Jazeera, BBC and NPR, highlighting cultural, personal and political facets of the country’s people. Luke spent much of his time in Tent City, Change Square – the protestors’ main area of living and congregating – where he had spent countless hours, days, weeks and
months sharing food, plans, conversation, and stories. This was Luke’s home.
Purpose of the Exhibit
Luke, amid his many human qualities, was a thoughtful, intensely passionate, sensitive soul who arrived in Yemen with no agenda but to simply be. His authentic and outgoing outlook toward the Yemeni people – as well as those of any other origin – led to his work as a photojournalist, as it not only allowed him to spend the bulk of his time with everyday citizens but also to continue his skilled hobby as a photographer while receiving a subsistent wage. A primary purpose of this exhibition is to not only celebrate the life of Luke– as a human being and as a citizen of the world – but to also appreciate the beautiful, highly detailed and telling work that he created from 2011 to 2013.
After Luke’s death, the state of Yemen has only become direr. Due to political corruption, the former and present administration’s use of drone strikes, as well as Saudi-led and U.S. backed sanctions, airstrikes, and bombings, Yemen has been reduced to a deplorable state, where malnutrition and youth mortality have skyrocketed. Luke knew, befriended and loved the very people who are now either gone or struggling for their survival. Through this
exhibition, we will be providing a lens through Luke’s – and, in turn, our – eyes to the hospitality, generosity, beauty and sheer authenticity of the people of Yemen. In doing so, we hope to bridge the wide gap in understanding that defines our “us-and-them” mentality, as well as to provide a glimpse into a day in the life of a Yemeni citizen.
We invite you to participate in a journey of Luke’s powerful and transformative years in Yemen.
Words from Luke
By Luke Somers
After moving to Sana’a in early February, Yemen’s (now “Honorary”) President Ali Abdullah Saleh long remained unreal in my imagination. I didn’t watch television much, but did hear people speak about him to an inordinate degree. Pictures of him, plastered about the city, again inordinately contributed to my sense of the man. Based simply on the pictures, he was waxy, vibrant, stern and yes, rather unreal.
Saleh, Yemen’s 33-year-long president, soon found a firmer foothold in my imagination. Not through personally witnessing him issuing directives and giving orders, but through coming into close contact with people daily affected by such directives and orders. Seeing with my own eyes (but thankfully, somehow, with my camera’s viewfinder acting as something of a buffer) how sniper fire from paid “balatiga” (“thugs”) could make a man’s face unrecognizable; how young people who, after a frantic motorcycle ride and who mere minutes earlier were forming the peace sign with their hands can then be deposited on a mosque floor, bleeding and unable to breathe.
Saleh has, from early this year, met his country’s brightest hopes for the future head on, and with unmitigated brutality. He, like many of the youth that desire some hope for themselves and their children (whether at home or in their future imaginings) have learned, understands that the world, simply put, generally cares as much as it knows about Yemen and its people – that is, very little. The difference is, while Saleh’s regime manages to capitalize on this lack of knowledge and interest to extract funds from more powerful nations for military equipment and training, Yemen’s pro-democracy protesters managed to see the world around them not with cynicism, but with hope.
Inspired by protests that swept dictators from Tunisia and Egypt, young men and women put down their books and individual aspirations with the aim of doing the same for their own country. This point can’t be emphasized enough. Living in a poor country, a country largely cut off from the daily swirl of world affairs, these young men and women realized that opportunities for individual betterment don’t come cheap – and may come around only once. Even so, modest numbers of university students took to the streets, unarmed, with peace signs held high, their safety receiving no guarantees. Their numbers only grew.
That the “shabab” – the youth – are less savvy when it comes to political affairs, and less organized than one might hope shouldn’t come as a surprise. The man they have been struggling to depose has been in power for more than most people in this young country have lived. It has, in fact, been both heartbreaking and beautiful to witness, to photograph, to spend hours with people who expect the best from the world and who have dared to believe in one of the best, most absurd ideas imaginable: that of peaceful protest.
Barely-conscious protesters, sprayed with chemicals and shot at close range, have raised the peace sign in the hope that a camera would see and that a world would care. Meanwhile, reality says that these same young Yemenis would, blindly, be more easily associated with al-Qaeda than with peace, even while it is impossible to find citizens from any part of the country who consider the local branch of the terrorist organization to be anything more than a ragtag band of men not numbering more than a hundred but who have, skillfully, been used by Saleh’s government to extract concessions, funds, equipment, and military training from foreign powers.
Ali Abdullah Saleh has since signed a power transfer deal. Government ministries have been divvied up between Saleh’s General People’s Congress party and opposition parties. Meanwhile, youths around the country have not left their “tent cities”. Resolving Yemen’s various states of crises has very possibly – and purposefully – been allowed to take precedence over meaningful change and grounds for future hope.
Saleh’s signing of the GCC power transfer deal may have seemed like an apt opportunity for the youth to celebrate. Some did, but many others resisted the temptation. I communicated with and photographed the 20-or-so denizens of the “Deaf and Dumb Youth Revolution Alliance” tent, not far from opposition-held Change Square, in the moments before and after Saleh’s signing. Gesticulating with fervor but managing not to overwhelm the lone translator, their comments ran from “Yemeni blood is precious, there must be a trial” to “As for the west, we tell them not to have double standards and use us to test their weapons. You demand human rights – where are our human rights in Yemen?” Their manner was nonetheless warm and their dedication to peaceful protest unquestionable. Their pointed words reflect frustration that their revolution – after so much blood has been shed and so much hope put into action – may somehow be lost. After ten months in Yemen, after being in the midst of its Yemenis in the most trying and revealing of circumstances, I don’t see such young men becoming future threats to global security. Rather, if their revolution and their positive outlooks have, in the end, proven to be futile, I see them growing older, living with dignity in impoverished conditions, and wondering where the rest of the world – and where their youthful, naïve hopes – went.
Special Thanks to:
- The Somers family for making this exhibit possible and for generously sharing Luke’s work with the world.
- The Olympia Film Society for providing the space and logistical support in sharing this exhibit with the Olympia community.