Above: Yazidi Wedding Celebrations, Mosul, Iraq, 2003 Copyright Alissa Everett
Published: The East African Nation 30 April-6 May 2022
Fresh out of university, graduating in political science and international relations, Nairobi-based American-born Alissa Everett took to the road in 2003, to capture events happening around the world. Armed with a camera, her first stop was Iraq, not on any tourist’s list of places to visit.
Iraq was in the midst of a war between 2003 and 2011 with a US-led coalition that overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein. The US claim was to ‘disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people’ – according to Wikipedia.
Unable to get a visa to the country, Everett flew to neighbouring Jordan, bought a car and with another journalist, drove to the border that was manned by US troops.
She managed to get into the country. “Journalists,” she tells, “were escorted by the US troops.” It was like looking at the war through the eyes of a soldier.
At this point, the young graduate was a freelancer, on a solo trip. But her images sold.
However, when the images were published, “they were not the images that I wanted to make any more,” she states.
They were typical war scenes – men with guns, bloodshed, and destruction. “I didn’t feel good about just shooting typical war scenes just so that they could get published, so I left Iraq.”
But her images of a different side of Iraq also sold – the wedding celebration she came across unexpectedly. “This was what I wanted to show, the life that existed despite the war. That Iraq wasn’t only the war.”
Today, with 130 countries covering six continents under her belt, she’s much sought-out and nicknamed ‘the humanitarian photographer’.
This April, Everett unveils her solo exhibition Covering Beauty, on invitation by the European Cultural Centre (ECC) for the 59th Venice Biennale that happens every two years and coveted by artists. Covering Beauty seeks to enhance our understanding of places usually defined by their conflict, to really see the people within.
“There is unexpected beauty in places that are otherwise typically stereotyped,” says the soft-spoken photographer. “During my travels, I have found that my impressions before are different to after, wherever I go. I find another side of the story and Kenya is an excellent example of that.
“The media and the European governments portray prevalent crime in Kenya, as a high-risk country for their citizens to visit. But when you arrive in Kenya, you realize that these are isolated cases and not prevalent.”
For the last six years, Nairobi has been her chosen home, loving its ambience and people, and also because it’s central to the countries she covers in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Countries that are known more for the terror, death and destruction…like the Ukraine, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo…there’s a whole bevy of countries she can list.
“Photographing in these countries may be difficult but there is the beauty of life happening despite the challenges that is not portrayed in the media but which is equally important to document. There is a dignity, a culture, a life that is happening different from what you would expect.
“My images are about encouraging people to think differently about the world because there is always a different side to a place.”
Her recent assignment has been the war in Ukraine, soon after the bombing started on 24 March.
Asked about taking on such assignments, Everett responds, “There is a risk level and anything can happen anywhere but you take personal responsibility.
In Ukraine, Everett chose to be at the border to document the Ukraine refugee situation.
In a few weeks, 10 million people in Ukraine have become refugees, displaced from their homes, lost loved ones and homes.
“There were mostly women and children, confused, grateful to get to safety, exhausted, been under bombardment for weeks and uncertain of what the future holds. It takes a toll yet the reception on the other side of the border, ordinary people offering hot cups of tea, nappies for the babies, was all about human kindness.”
Her images are powerful, captured in a moment. In Nairobi’s Mathare slum, capturing life during the Covid-19 pandemic of mothers pondering over the future of their children in this crisis, with no school to escape slum life, she comes across two new mothers vibrant with their new-born babies despite the hardship of slum life.
In war-torn Darfur in South Sudan, she follows the story of a 15-year-old girl separated from her family during the war, fleeing the village under fire. She ends up in a refugee camp. Three years later her mother and sister are found in another refugee camp, thousands of miles away. “It was a very touching moment watching them being reunited.”
In DRC, covering the war against the militia, in a country that is stunningly beautiful, she was attacked – the only time ever in her profession.
“It was the militia,” she recounts. “They took my camera and let me go.”
Again, with insight she comments: “These (militia) are mostly men and women abducted as kids from their villages. They no know other life, they are angry, but there is a human side to them.”
The DRC, despite being one of the world’s most resource-rich countries, is also one of the world’s poorest with nations in vested interest in the country’s mineral and natural wealth, supporting their choice of militia.
Asked about encouraging travel to countries in the midst of war, she replies, “There has to be a purpose to why you are going there. You can’t go there as a tourist because the people need the scarce food and water that you as a tourist also needs. But if you are going there to help, than it’s different – like doctors.
“We have as humans more in common than differences, and if people can see that, we would have a more peaceful world,” she states at the end of the interview.
Covering Beauty will be showcased in Nairobi in September.