JFK created the Peace Corps in 1961 to improve America’s global image by sending our best and brightest youth to work with local people on development projects in third world countries. Alissa Everett joined the corps some 30 years after JFK died, but she certainly fit the mold. Fresh out of UCLA with a degree in Political Science and already a seasoned traveler with a strong social conscience, she spent two years as a volunteer in the West African nation of Senegal.
Despite feeling ‘a bit disillusioned with development work and non-profit organizations,’ her respect for people of other cultures and her desire to help remained very much intact. With those values in mind, she embarked upon a brief career in investment banking to gain necessary business skills and then left the field to pursue her dream of becoming a photographer.
Today, those values inspire her work as a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer seeking humanity in the world’s most troubled regions, including Iraq and Darfur.
Alissa lives in San Francisco and travels frequently on assignment. Since 2001, she has been to over 50 countries and her images and writings have appeared in The Sunday Times of London, the Economist, The San Francisco Chronicle, Islands Magazine, Traveler Overseas, Sport Diver Magazine, and on NBC Dateline News. She took classes to improve her technical skills but the qualities that make her unique– her ability to connect with local people and to fend for herself on hostile streets– are things you don’t learn in school.
Alissa launched her career in 2002 by embarking on a hazardous journey through the Balkans when that brutal war was winding down, and across the Middle East when the invasion of Iraq was about to begin. One colleague wrote, ‘A remarkable and game young woman of my acquaintance, Alissa Everett, set out on a tour of trouble in July of last year. She knocked around the Balkans for a spell, then spent time with Palestinians in Gaza. By this July, she’d made it to Baghdad. She has sharp eyes and a possibly pathological instinct for the very thick of it.’
Alissa’s first trip to the Middle East convinced her that war was about to begin. She came home for a month to rest up, then spent all of 2003 in the Middle East, most of it in Iraq. ‘I knew that if I was serious about photography, I had to go back and shoot the war when it happened. I felt very compelled to be there as a witness,’ she says. Arriving without press credentials, she worked as one of the few unaffiliated photographers in the country during and after the invasion.
The Sunday Times was the first paper to run her photos. With that connection, she got herself embedded with the 101st Airborne in Mosul, when General David Petraeus (who now commands the entire Iraq operation) was earning respect as one of the few U.S. generals able to relate to the local population and keep the insurgency in check. When his troops killed Saddam’s infamous sons, Uday and Qusay, during a fierce firefight at a villa on the outskirts of Mosul, Alissa was the only press photographer allowed to take pictures inside the building. Her photos ended up on an NBC Dateline News special about the brothers. She was also in the area when Petraeus’ men pulled Saddam Hussein out of his spider hole, and later roamed the streets of Baghdad gauging the popular reaction to his capture.
Alissa felt so ‘sucked into’ the life of a war photographer that she found it difficult to leave Iraq. Finally, she came home for a short break around Christmas 2003, which gave her a chance to reflect and change direction. ‘I got an agency to represent my work as a war photographer and was planning to go right back to Iraq, but I began asking myself what I really want to say about the world,’ she recalls. ‘Many photographers are doing the incredibly important work of documenting the negative side of humankind. Not as many are representing the positive. But some of my strongest impressions in Iraq were times with Iraqi families who opened their doors to me. I had a birthday over there, and an Iraqi family I had befriended baked me a birthday cake. Each member of the family went out and bought me small gifts, despite having nothing and being in the middle of a war. There’s conflict and war, but what makes the world so special to me are the people, the oneness of humankind. I decided I want to focus more on the beauty in the world, even in horrible places.’
When it comes to the Panasonic workshops, one of the most important things Alissa wants to share with students is her knack for photographing people from other cultures. ‘I love to shoot people,’ she says. ‘There is something about interacting with other human beings that touches my heart and I never forget. You can’t make that connection without reaching out. Many people have a hard time interacting with to people, they get nervous or shy. I would like to empower and inspire students to interact with the people they meet. Those connections are how you make great photographs and are ultimately what you take home from your travels.’
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