Fresh out of university after graduating in political science and international relations in 2003, Alissa Everett took to the road, armed with a camera, headed to Iraq.
Unable to get a visa to the country, she flew to neighbouring Jordan, bought a car and in the company of a journalist, drove to the border that was manned by US troops.
She got in. “Journalists,” she says, “were escorted by the US troops.”
The American-born graduate was a freelancer, and her photographs were bought.
However, when the images were published, “they were not the images that I wanted to make any more”, she said.
“I didn’t feel good about just shooting typical war scenes just so that they could get published, so I left Iraq.”
Her images of a different side of Iraq also sold — the wedding she came across unexpectedly. “This was what I wanted to show. Life that existed despite the war. That Iraq wasn’t only the war.”
Today, with 130 countries over six continents under her belt, she has been nicknamed “the humanitarian photographer”.
This month, Everett unveiled her solo exhibition Covering Beauty, on invitation by the European Cultural Centre at the 59th Venice Biennale. Her collection 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 Nairobi-based photographer. “I find another side of the story, and Kenya is an excellent example of that. The media and European governments portray prevalent crime in Kenya as a high-risk country for their citizens. But when you arrive, you realise that these are isolated cases.”
For the past six years, Nairobi has been her home because it is central to the countries she covers in Africa, Asia and the Middle East like the Ukraine, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Chad, the DRC.
“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.
“My images are about encouraging people to think differently about the world.”
Her pictures are powerful. In Nairobi’s Mathare slum, she captures life during the Covid-19 pandemic, when two mothers enjoy time with their newborns.
In Darfur, 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 at a refugee camp, thousands of kilometres away. “It was a touching moment, watching them being reunited.”
In DRC, covering the war against the militia, she was attacked — the only time ever in her profession.
“It was the militia,” she recounts. “They took my camera and let me go. These are mostly men and women abducted as kids from their villages. They know no other life. They are angry, but there is a human side to them.”
Her most recent assignment has been the war in Ukraine, soon after the bombing started on March 24.
Asked about taking on such assignments, Everett says, “There is a risk level and anything can happen anywhere, but you take personal responsibility”.
Covering Beauty will be on show in Nairobi in September.