Covering Beauty by Alissa Everett
Covering Beauty by Alissa Everett seeks to change our understanding of conflict zones, offering a view of the dignity and humanity behind news narratives.
Covering Beauty by Alissa Everett offers a unique opportunity to see beyond the headlines and discover the humanity and dignity of people living in countries touched by conflict.
The moving and visually stunning exhibition is presented by the European Cultural Centre.
“Covering Beauty is basically a concept that covers 20 years of work in conflict and post-conflict areas,” says Alissa.
“It’s been a journey of mine through these different situations and times and places to decide what it was that I actually wanted to say about the world.
“The overall media biases I encountered for these places were stereotypes of horror and terror and war and poverty.
“And yet, every time I was in a situation, obviously those things existed. But there was also the other side of the story.
“And the other side of the story were these moments of beauty and kindness and humanity and dignity.”
‘It’s about dignity’
Alissa says she has always been a little ‘outside of the box’ in terms of ‘what a woman should do’. The same was true for her career in photojournalism.
“I felt the images people were asking me to make, or that were getting published, were not the pictures I wanted to be making.
“The overall focus at that time, specifically the war in Iraq, what people were looking for were very violent images that weren’t the ones that I wanted to be making.”
Alissa made a conscious decision to move from photojournalism to humanitarian photography.
“It’s about the humans, it’s about the dignity, it’s about the human experience. It’s about the positive that we can find in the world no matter where we are.”
Having worked in the Peace Corps for two years, Alissa had first-hand experience of dispelling stereotypes.
“There’s been a journey of emails from family and friends saying ‘how could you possibly be safe? Are you okay? You’re blonde, female.’.
“And those come at times when you’re being welcomed into communities and into houses and connecting with people.
“You think, wow, the idea that people have in one part of the world about these people in a different part of the world is so vastly disparate.
“For me, it’s been thinking about how do I connect to those people?
“How do I relay the humanity and beauty I find in the world to people who don’t have that experience?”
Juxtaposition with media coverage
Covering Beauty brings the contrast between preconceptions and reality into stark relief.
Alissa’s images are accompanied by quotes from newspapers at the time they were taken.
“I made an image of a Yazidi wedding in Iraq in 2003. And in that same timeframe there was a quote in a newspaper that said, ‘there is no love, only war in Iraq’. And I think it’s that juxtaposition.
“Even for me, there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance. When I get to a new place and I’ve read a lot about it and I think I know what I’m getting, what I’m going to see, and when I get there what I find is something often quite different.
“That’s what this exhibition is about – challenging people to think differently about what they read in the media, what they think they know about the world, what they think they know about people who live in different parts of the world.
“Ultimately, we have more in common than we do in difference.”
People not victims
Despite their positivity, Alissa’s images address serious social issues, from gender violence to refugee crises.
Yet for Alissa the two are not as dissonant as they might seem.
“A point of inspiration for me in my work is being in these situations, covering situations that are quite difficult, and yet, seeing how people navigate those and move through those and still maintain strength and courage and dignity.
“We often see depictions of people that are going through difficult times as being victims. They often don’t see themselves as victims.
“They don’t really want to be depicted as victims, they actually want to be depicted as having strength and following through and what they actually need.
“I think this is a much more powerful message that finally some of the NGOs are catching on to – we need to really support those who’ve been through hard times to get back on their feet to move forward.
“They’re not victims who need a handout.”
In 2007, Alissa founded her own non-profit, Exposing Hope, to support the communities she had visited.
“I spent some time in Darfur. It was one of those situations where I had looked online and the images I had seen were all black and white, starving children crawling through the sand, or that famous image of the vulture with the starving baby.
“When I was preparing to go to Darfur, I thought, ‘oh my god, it’s going be the hardest trip I’ve ever done’.
“And when I got there what I found was an Africa that was colourful and bright and full of life.
“That was the first time I decided to make images about the dignity of the people, it was a portrait series.”
Alissa returned to San Francisco, where she was based at the time, and held a fundraising exhibition for the World Food Programme.
From there, she decided to continue selling photography to promote change and raise funds for local NGOs.
Her fundraising efforts have supported food donations in refugee camps, scholarships and safe houses for survivors of sexual violence.
The most recent project is a library for South Sudanese secondary students living in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya.
A lasting legacy
For Alissa, Covering Beauty is more than just an exhibition – it is a philosophy.
“It’s really what do I want to say about the world? What’s that legacy?
“If I were to disappear tomorrow, what images would people see?
“Iraq 2003, there’s a lot of images of war, there’s a lot of images of soldiers and explosions and car bombs and death and destruction.
“But where were the images of the people? Who has those images?
“It’s really about leaving behind that there was another side to the story. So in that sense, I will always cover beauty.”
Covering Beauty is on at Palazzo Bembo, Venice, Italy, until November 27 as part of the Venice Biennial Art Exhibition.
More information on the festival is available here.
“I hope that people are able to really get the message, the juxtaposition of those words and the places and the moments that one is seeing, because they are so jarringly different,” says Alissa.
“I really hope that people would be surprised and I hope that they would take a moment to pause and think, ‘wow, these are incredibly moving pictures and beautiful moments that are not sad’.
“They’re inspiring, or they’re funny or beautiful.”
View the digital catalogue here.