Alissa Everett’s mission to humanise the people behind the headlines
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Alissa Everett was working as a photojournalist covering the conflict in Iraq in 2003 when she met an inspiring Mines Advisory Group (MAG) volunteer. In his 60s, he had come out of retirement to help teach Iraqis to de-weaponise all the abandoned ammunition stores they were finding, so they didn’t get into the wrong hands. Everett, realising it was the anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who was a passionate supporter of MAG, pitched the story of this returning hero to a newspaper. They declined. “A week later, he was shot dead with an RPG,” says Everett. “These very editors called me back and said, ‘Hey, can we do the story now?’ I remember feeling disgusted. We couldn’t do the story when the man was alive doing some good work, but they could do the story once he was dead, to make it something sensational.”
The incident catalysed Everett – a native Californian who had spent time both in the Peace Corps in west Africa and as an investment banker – into switching tack from news photojournalism to beginning a career as a humanitarian photographer. The practice uses images to raise awareness of social issues, inspire and advocate for change. “There’s a lot of people telling negative stories, but there are very few people telling the positive stories,” she says. “We all have more in common than we have differences, and if we could all think that way, the world would probably be a nicer place.”
In the 19 years since that turning point in Iraq, Everett, now based in Nairobi, has covered issues in Darfur, Gaza, Afghanistan and the DRC, working with a range of NGOs, UN organisations, charities and magazines, from the Global Fund for Women to the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration, which recently sent her to Ukraine to “humanise the refugees”, as she puts it. Her work has been recognised by the Sony World Photography Awards, the Gordon Parks Photo Awards and Photography Open Salon Arles, among others.
Particularly memorable assignments include a photostory in Barotseland, the nation subsumed into Zambia, documenting the ceremony transporting the king up the Zambezi river to his high water palace. “It’s a fascinating story of colonialism and people fighting to hold on to their identities, their language and their ceremonies,” says Everett. “And to celebrate their traditions.’’
Or there’s her 2019 trip to South Sudan, where Unicef asked Everett to help raise awareness of its mission to reunite the 8,000 children separated from their families. Everett told the story of 15-year-old Nyangang, journeying with her as she travelled the 1,000km from her camp to be reunited with her mother and sister after three years apart.
“At the beginning of my career, when I would make a beautiful image of a refugee, people would say it’s not serious. It’s too cheery. Or nobody wants to see kids and women,” says Everett. “If they weren’t bloody and dark and black and white, they weren’t seen as ‘good’ photographs. That’s slowly shifting.”
“Alissa is able to tell a detailed story through a single image,” says Malika Ra, director of global photo assignments at Getty Images. “She knows how to represent the micro and macro in a story. Most valuable of all, Alissa knows how to capture the natural dignity in her subjects.”
It was in Darfur, in 2006, that Everett began to feel that photographs weren’t enough of a prompt to galvanise humanitarian action. “What people were giving to me in terms of their hospitality and their openness and their trust felt so much more than what I could give them back from merely publishing a story or a photograph,” she says. So she started exhibiting photographs and raising funds, usually working with a local partner organisation. It was the beginning of her charity, Exposing Hope. “I made a series of portraits of survivors. They weren’t the numbers, the statistics who had died. They needed our assistance and our understanding and compassion.” She raised more than $25,000 for the World Food Programme in Darfur.
Subsequent exhibitions have raised funds for safe houses in the DRC and a library for schoolchildren in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. This summer saw Everett show as part of the Venice Biennale, where beautiful scenes were contrasted with bleak headlines about the same place. Called Covering Beauty, it “was a conversation about how we’re seeing the world and how we’re being directed to see the world. And is there a way to look differently?”
The intersection between art and humanitarian photography “is a growing movement”, says Covering Beauty curator Elena Volpato, “especially now that the boundaries between fact and fiction are becoming less tangible every day. There is an increasing need for new ways of conveying a meaningful and truthful narrative. And there is nothing more powerful than art to do this.”
Volpato’s favourite image from the show is a wedding: “Joy is universal and there are no boundaries,” she says. Everett agrees: the wedding photo, taken in Mosul in 2003, sums up her mission: “It’s really about having people challenged and surprised, and to make them think twice the next time they read a headline in the news that says there is no love, only war in Iraq. And yet… there’s a beautiful wedding.” Look for the people, she seems to say, behind the headlines. They’re just like you.
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