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Beloit honors Luke Somers’08 by displaying photos around campus

A new set of images are going up around campus to honor alum Luke Somers’08, who was killed in 2014 while working as a photojournalist in Yemen.

The six professionally framed photographs on display were donated to the College by fellow alum and friend of Somers Jasmine Nears Biesinger’08. Nears had purchased them last fall at a photo exhibit in New York City put on by Will Pacard of the Yemen Peace Project with permission from Paula and Jordan Somers, Luke’s mother and brother. Half of the proceeds went to the Yemen Peace Project and half went to the Somers’s family. After attending New York University, Nears now lives in New York City.

I was moved to see his work on the walls of my graduate school,” she said, continuing, “Luke’s work is amazing. It captures a part of him that is still here with us. I thought it would be nice to donate some of Luke’s work to Beloit College to inspire other Beloiters to live their life and passions to the fullest like Luke did.”

After being donated, the photographs became part of the Beloit College Collection.

I would like them to be a permanent fixture at Beloit College the same way Luke is a permanent fixture in our hearts,” she said. To implement this vision, Nears contacted Spiritual Life Program director Bill Conover, who recruited help from the Wright Museum and others who had known Somers.

Wright Museum Attendant Emma Mooney’17 was put in charge of facilitating the photographs’ display. The Collection “has become a sort of notoriously vague collection among campus museum staff,” she said. Mooney started the installation project in February, waiting to get approval from building supervisors. Steve Sutherland from Physical Plant also helped with installation, which was completed a few weeks ago. The accompanying text was put up about a week after that.

Two of the photos now hang in the Office of International Education, with one each in World Affairs Center, Java Joint and the Library. The caption of each photo comes directly from Somers’s original files, written in his own words. The accompanying background text was written by Mooney, with help from Conover, English professor Shawn Gillen, fellow student of Somers and Assistant Professor of Economics Laura Grube and OIE Director Elizabeth Brewer.

Mooney has also been gathering photographs and Somers’ creative writing pieces from family and friends for a digital memorial on the Beloit College website. 

While at Beloit, Somers studied creative writing and was friends with many international students. He developed an interest in the Middle East and North Africa after semesters abroad in Morocco and Egypt, and returned to the region to teach English in Yemen three years after graduating. Arriving during the beginning of the Arab Spring, a time of political unrest, Somers started working as a freelance photojournalist, publishing front page photographs to global media outlets.

In September 2013, Somers was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and held captive for 15 months. He was killed by his captors on Dec. 6, 2014 during a rescue attempt after two unsuccessful rescue missions by U.S. military forces.

Nears shared a floor with Somers when they were students at the College.

We had the same friends in common and spent tons of time just hanging out, relaxing, listening to music, and talking about life. Luke was always such an inspiration to me and his smile was intoxicating. To have known Luke was such a blessing. Something that stays with you forever.” she said.

The goal of this initiative, particularly as we approach the 4 year anniversary of Luke’s death, is to make sure that Luke’s story and personhood are not forgotten on the Beloit College campus. Despite the tragedy of it all, Luke’s story is an important reminder of the immense sacrifices that are made in the name of human rights,” Mooney said.

Following Somers’s death, some of his photographs had been displayed in the Wright Museum in an exhibit on conflict photography curated by Beloit College alum Todd Tubutis.

Most of the photographs are portraits of Yemenis, often during or after a protest.

The photos very much fit in with the campus’s anti-racist work, shedding light on the lives of Yemenis who are actively engaging in a demand for human rights and political change. They are putting their lives at risk for these causes,” Brewer said, continuing “The photos in [OIE] make clear the determination and courage of Yemeni youth and Yemeni women.”

With help from Brewer, Somers had applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to study development in Yemen. Though he wasn’t accepted, Brewer said this was “one step toward his moving to Yemen.” She noted he “took every opportunity to get to know local people” while studying abroad.

Yemen is little understood in the U.S., which has a complicated relationship with the country because of its reliance on Yemeni ports for U.S. navy operations in the region,” she said.

His story is being retold so that continuing generations of Beloiters will know it and will hopefully find pride and inspiration in it,” Mooney added.

Mooney sees this as a significant initiative for campus art overall. Art on campus can “act a visual indicator of our beliefs, values, and tastes as a community,” she said. “I think displaying art like Luke’s that is current, that connects to contemporary issues of civil disobedience, corrupt leadership, and the many growing and evolving Middle Eastern diasporic communities, is a step in the right direction.”

She continued, “Filling our wall space and grounds with meaningless forms is a missed opportunity. So I hope that more works like Luke’s on campus can form a more representative picture of what Beloit at least hopes to be, and that it can spark important conversations about the state of the world today.”

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