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The Splash in Jerusalem that Rippled Across Milwaukee: The Samer Ghani Story

Aug. 17, 2022 at 1:40PM

In the late 70s, Eatdal, better known as Daisy, immigrated from Jerusalem to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

She moved to Milwaukee because her brothers had come here, and it felt like a good place to start acquiring generational wealth. Much better than the coasts, it was industrial and up-and-coming. She got a job at a cookie factory in the Miller Valley and eventually opened up her own bodega in what is now Riverwest. She had two girls, then a little over ten years later, a son, Samer Ghani. If you’re in the Milwaukee music scene, you’ve heard of him. But not because he’s a musician.

Daisy raised Samer as a single mother. She sent him to a Milwaukee Public Schools where he learned to play viola and violin. Samer’s orchestra teacher ended up being Byron Lampkins, the uncle of famous Milwaukee musician Klassik. It was Lampkins that had a profound effect on Samer, beginning his love for music and energizing him as an artist in his community.

Lampkins and his other teachers saw something special in Samer and pushed Daisy to send him to a better high school, so she sent him to Reagan, a college preparatory school. There, he took an arts path and pretty much threw shit at the wall for four years. Nothing stuck. Samer says, “It felt like I couldn't translate from my brain to hand what I wanted to get out of my artistic expression.” But to graduate, seniors needed to put together a gallery show. In his final year, he rented a camera from the school, and it all clicked. He fell in love with storytelling through photography, and OnMilwaukee published a photo from his first featured gallery, one of his proudest achievements.

Concert, photo courtesy of Samer Ghani
Concert, photo courtesy of Samer Ghani

The Camera Man

Armed with a camera, Samer’s first thought was about where he could make the most difference. How does he help people? He loved the Milwaukee music scene and saw immense value in the live shows he was going to, but felt like nobody else was taking it seriously. He thought if he started documenting it, he could legitimize it.

He spent four years taking pictures for free. Two without much feedback at all, but he was getting better and better and better. Eventually, he single-handedly became the Milwaukee music scene’s marketing department. He was their only source of advertising, taking pictures for musicians to use on posters, posting on social media, and creating the content to make everyone jealous of the cool shows they were missing out on.

Samer is nothing if not introspective, and as he got deeper into photography he began asking himself, ‘Why?’

Why is he a photographer?

Why is it important to him?

He tells me he connected the dots backward and it took him to his roots in Palestine. “Journalism is such a big thing to me as a Palestinian-American, so I can kind of understand through an open lens what's happening in Israel and Palestine … If there weren't photojournalists in the world, I wouldn't know about what's happening there.”

That took his photos to the next level. He went from taking pictures of people, to truly listening to them. Getting in their heads and showing off their souls. Looking at his photos now, they have a certain depth to them. You can almost feel the weather in his landscape photos, and the people in his portraits look like they’re in the middle of a sentence. They are trying to tell you something. They have a story.

DJ Shawna, photo courtesy of Samer Ghani
DJ Shawna, photo courtesy of Samer Ghani

Culture is Created by the People with Power

As a photographer of color, Samer thinks a lot about culture and whiteness and what it means to be a POC in Milwaukee and America. It inspired a post on Twitter, which was actually the impetus for why I wanted to interview Samer. I had worked and chatted with Samer previously, but it was time to get into the nitty-gritty.

We sat down in the backyard of his mom’s house and he explained his tweet. It’s about generational wealth. White kids have the privilege to do more recreational activities, like music. People of color do not.

Samer took me back in time. “In Milwaukee we have a culture of immigrants. German and Polish specifically. They have built churches that stand and have culture. But there is not one from the people of color. Anything they built was just building for work, they were not able to build structures that connected to their past. That celebrated their history.”

An Artist of Color Surrounded by Whiteness

As a person of color, he still feels the weight of being surrounded by white culture in all-white spaces, and as a working photographer, he feels it on the job.

I ask him what that’s like, and he explains it better than I have ever heard anybody explain it. 

“Imagine you are always starting over …”

He continues, “No matter how much experience you have, no matter how much onus over the craft or the job or whatever it is that you do, imagine starting all the way over every time you start a new job or you enter a new environment or you're trying something new. Like no matter what you've done in the past it almost will never matter until you prove yourself again.”

Being an artist of color has also put him in some ethical dilemmas.

In 2020, he was asked to do exit poll interviews in Wausau by a major broadcasting company. He told them straight up, “As a person of color I'm not gonna get what you're looking for. These people are not gonna engage with me the way that you think they're going to.” How did they react? They fired him of course, with the old, “Well if you don’t want the job …”

Then there are the situations where white people want to use him to legitimize themselves. The old, “I have a black friend” defense.

In 2020, a Shorewood attorney received disorderly conduct charges after spitting on a teenage protester. The law firm representing her asked Samer to film her apology. He explained, “The implication would be that me as an artist of color would stand with her.” He literally laughed and said no. They laughed and understood, saying they just had to try. Interestingly enough that case just went to trial. She was offered a deferred prosecution agreement, meaning she would have to plead guilty, but she declined and wants to stand trial—with a different lawyer.

To be honest, I’m part of the problem too. I was on a shoot with a Bucks player (not Giannis, but another player of color) where Samer was filming. I told him, “I’ll be the only one to talk to the talent.” I’m white. Samer and the player are not. They can understand each other in a way I never could. I should not have stood in the way of letting them connect. Fortunately, they ended up doing it themselves right away, making for an even stronger shoot. In our interview, Samer called me out on this—kindly, but rightly so—and I’m glad he did.

Since Samer is such an immense talent, he did get a chance to work with Giannis, and they did connect. Samer even ended up talking to Giannis’ mom. He is so often the only other person of color in the room on these types of shoots. He single-handedly brings an understanding, a shared experience, and a common perspective to working with artists of color. White people can be like a bull in a china shop, taking charge and assuming roles of leadership because of our feelings of entitlement. Causing people like Samer always feel like they need to start over.

Milwaukee at dusk, photo courtesy of Samer Ghani
Milwaukee at dusk, photo courtesy of Samer Ghani

The Positive Ripple Effect

But white ignorance isn’t holding Samer back. He finds his way to the center of any scene. He prides himself on being a connector between cultures and people.

He knows that serving his community—talking about issues—bringing his point of view into new circles can create the change he would like to see in Milwaukee. A Milwaukee where people of color feel seen. Where we can have a pop-punk and a hip-hop artist on a bill together at a place like Cactus Club and merge two different audiences. Where arts and culture and music can all come together and connect.

He calls it the “positive ripple effect.” “It's people like my mom that came here and chose to start a business from nothing, her ripple effect on the community that she served at that time, and then her ripple effect on the community she continues to serve as a working tax-paying American. How that trickled down to me, how I'm choosing to serve my community, and how as a person of color I bring a different perspective to a community.”

One of the best examples of the positive ripple effect is Samer’s garage. A local graphic designer named Reid Finley commissioned Samer to do a one-minute video for a gallery showing. At the gallery, Samer and Reid got to talking and connected. Later Reid came to Samer’s house and thought Samer’s garage would be a cool place to paint a mural. Samer agreed. He also thought Reid was incredibly talented and deserved more recognition. 

When he left, Samer started thinking. “Okay, I have something unique here. Can I serve him up a whole opportunity? Can I give him two walls to paint on? Can I get it written up on Milwaukee NPR and have other local publications pick this up, get him interviewed, and create a buzz around the art that he did?”

And that’s exactly what happened. WUWM—Milwaukee’s NPR published a story, Reid added some great work to his portfolio, and Samer got a beautiful mural inspired by the Palestinian Flag.

Samer Ghani in front of a mural painted by Reid Finley
Samer Ghani in front of a mural painted by Reid Finley

“There's nothing that just fits in Milwaukee. We make things fit, and that’s the beauty of our community. We turn the worst into the best. That's what we do. That’s what we've done since Milwaukee's inception.”

Everyone I know either knows Samer or knows someone who knows him. When I took classes at Dropout Fight Club boxing gym, Samer was there taking pictures. When I went to Summerfest to see DJ Shawna, Samer was there on stage taking pictures. His reputation for being a great photographer, a hard worker, and a man of pure kindness has spread like craft breweries across Milwaukee. But he sure is humble about it. “I didn’t choose to be at the center of anything. People allowed me to be there, and as long as people are gonna allow me to be there, I have to serve them.”

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The Start of Something Great

“I used to hate Milwaukee,” Samer says. He was young and angry and felt like Milwaukee had nothing to offer him. Now he sees it very differently. He uses a Tony Soprano quote to explain. In the first episode of The Sopranos Tony says to his therapist, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” That’s the opposite of how Samer feels.

He says, “It's an up-and-coming city. It's really exciting to be a part of something new. If you're in Milwaukee you’re at the start of something. You're perpetually at the start of something, and that's a good feeling.”

He doesn’t sugarcoat what Milwaukee has to overcome, but he is immensely positive about where it can go. “It still has a lot to work out, but as long as there are people like us, and all the other artists in Milwaukee, doing the good work and having tough conversations and creating dialogue and choosing to continue to do the work, we have limitless potential here.”

And there’s that ripple effect. I’m immediately inspired to do better in so many ways. I want to see Samer’s positive influence, his dedication to change, and his passion for connections ripple through Milwaukee, then Wisconsin, and the world.

Luckily, to create a ripple that reaches every corner you just need to be right in the center of the water. And that’s exactly where he is, right in the middle of it all. Always.

Samer tells me, “Every great society connects to their past. We wouldn’t be telling the Mayflower story if it wasn’t important.”

I have faith that someday we’ll all be telling the story of Eatdal, better known as Daisy, and her son Samer Ghani. The Milwaukee photographer and connector whose ripple effect we’re feeling, with the pictures to prove it.

More Articles by Mike Betette

About the author

Mike Betette

Mike is an improviser and writer who has performed with The Second City, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and was a writer/director for Epic Rap Battles of History. He’s currently a senior copywriter at an ad agency in Milwaukee and loves to be outside.