When I first read about world famous photographer, Alissa Everett, in the August 2011 issue of Oprah magazine, I knew I had to interview her. She’s incredibly Gutsy, and decided to turn her passion into her job. Alissa is so busy traveling around the world, using her photography to tell the success stories that we need to hear about: women in Africa, and so many others.
Interview with Alissa Everett
I discovered you and your work through the August issue of the Oprah magazine and was fascinated by your story.
As someone who believes in taking risks in life, what fascinated me was how you gave up the idea of following the career path, (100 hour work weeks), getting a business degree and changed your course to follow your passion.
Sonia: Tell us briefly the process you went through between the time you decided to quit your job and the time you left on your backpacking trip. Was there one critical moment that made you decide to go for your passion? Which countries did you visit first and why? How old were you? Did you travel alone? Were you scared? What did your family and friends say? Any regrets or advice?
Alissa: There actually was a very clear moment. I was looking through my business school acceptance package, looking for classes I wanted to take. I remember seeing economics, statistics, calculus, flipping each page faster and faster thinking “I don’t want to take any of these. What am I doing??” I had achieved acceptance into a top five business school and was on my way, but on my way to a destination I knew I didn’t want.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do so I went traveling to give myself some time and space to figure things out. I went to South East Asia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma and explored, sometimes with a friend, sometimes alone. I took my camera and began photographing again, something I had neglected for several years. During those travels I decided that I wanted to pursue my photography full time.
I was a little nervous at first, as this was my first big trip alone, but that quickly faded. And my family was very supportive.
Sonia: You mentioned you wanted to be a National Geographic photographer as a kid. Did someone try to talk you out of following your passion? Did you ever stop taking pictures?
Alissa: No one talked me out of it, but no one really encouraged me either. My parents are both professionals with graduate degrees and I really felt I needed to follow that same path. The only time I stopped taking pictures was when I was in investment banking, too busy to do anything but my work.
Sonia: In 2003 you made a gut decision “to go where the news was happening.” What prompted this decision? Tell us where you went and why? What aspect intrigued you? Was there a moment were you feared for your life?
Alissa: I was in the Middle East in late 2002 and was sure that the United States was going to go to war in Iraq. I also knew that the whole world would be watching and that if I managed to get in, someone would want to publish my photographs. I went to cover the war to begin my career.
Sonia: Did your Peace Corps work in Senegal, West Africa, influence you in terms of your future career choice and your desire to return to Africa?
Alissa: Absolutely. Africa has a way of getting under your skin and always calling you back. After living in a village in Senegal for over two years, the United States felt like a foreign country and a part of me will always feel more at home in Africa.
Sonia: You’ve done so many gutsy things in your life most people would be scared to do. What advice do you have for someone who wants to try something new but is stuck in their comfort zone?
Alissa: You don’t have to go to a war zone to get out of your comfort zone. Most of us have small things every day that challenge and scare us. My advice would only be to take those things head on. I make it a point to do anything that scares me even a little bit, for example, public speaking. When I was a kid, I would stay home from school “sick” on the day I had to give a class presentation. When O Magazine called and asked me to speak at their annual conference three weeks ago, I was terrified, I reverted to that shy kid, but accepted to conquer that fear and ended up speaking on a stage in front of 5,000 people.
Sonia: I am fascinated by how you want your photography to show us “the under-the-radar stories that have passion, hope, and optimism.” Most of us see only the atrocities on TV, so can you give us specific examples of your favorite up-beat stories in parts of the world like Darfur, or DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) that give us hope?
Alissa: There are so many amazing stories – I wish the mainstream media would focus more on the positive happening in the world. A great example, and only one of many, is from my last trip to the DRC. Care Through Action funded a safe house in an area of eastern DRC, along the Ugandan border, an area that is still today very volatile. We also funded a rotating credit fund. In this program, women receive an initial loan of $100 and repay $2 a month. As they repay the loan, once the $100 is reached, the repaid sum rotates to a new woman entering the program. The women were doing so well, they began paying back the loan plus interest, thus growing the initial sum of the fund. Rather than distributing the profits amongst themselves, the women decided to take that money and pay for all of the orphans in their village to go to school. Stories like those inspire me in my daily life and keep me motivated to help more women. The women in these communities will take care of their own if we empower them to do so.
Sonia: What prompted you to start “Care Through Action”? Who is involved? I read that you focus on helping women with loans that they repay. They are taught skills such as sewing, basket weaving and baking bread. How easy is it for them to make money through selling their goods? Are they protected from all the atrocities we hear about like rape? Does CTA (Care Through Action) help them learn how to read and write? What about the children?
Alissa: Care Through Action was born in 2007 in response to my work in Darfur. I began exhibiting my work to show a different side to the tragedy, to show the strength and the dignity of the refugees, rather than focusing on their suffering. I felt a great responsibility to help the refugees in the camps I had been photographing, as well as a responsibility to those who viewed my work to provide them a way to help.
Thus, with Care Through Action, we can discuss difficult subject while finding hope in a solution. Our mission is to inspire involvement and action – providing donors specific projects to fund that make a difference in people’s lives.
We are currently working in the DRC with survivors of sexual violence. The biggest issue is that they are abandoned by their husbands and often ostracized by the community. Through our partner, HEAL Africa, we build safe houses, provide counselors, skills training, and rotating credit funds for survivors of sexual violence. The women form small cooperatives, choose the training the want (sewing, baking, basket weaving, etc.), and work together, supporting each other both financially and emotionally. The safe houses become community centers of activity, and often the women begin to include women from the surrounding community who are not necessarily survivors of violence, but are just as poor.
Sonia: What are your goals over the next 5-10 years?
Alissa: My goal for Care Through Action is to grow our donor and issue base. We envision a global, informed community where the human rights of every individual are protected, connected by images and stories of hope and dignity that nurture the spirit and create empathy for one another.
We want to be a resource for this goal, a place where people who want to help can come to learn more about the most important issues facing women today and provide them with tangible and powerful ways to create lasting solutions at the local level.
Sonia: What can we do to help Care Through Action?
Alissa: Spread the word and donate!
My favorite quotes from Alissa are:
- “I was a little nervous at first, as this was my first big trip alone, but that quickly faded.”
- “Africa has a way of getting under your skin and always calling you back.”
- “You don’t have to go to a war zone to get out of your comfort zone.”
- “I make it a point to do anything that scares me even a little bit, for example, public speaking.”
- “I wish the mainstream media would focus more on the positive happening in the world.”
Photos (c) Alissa Everett. All rights reserved.
” Thank you so much for answering these questions Alissa. I hope you enjoyed reading this interview with a fascinating woman. I have donated to help women get loans so they can learn new skills and help other rape victims and their children start a new life. “
Remember to please submit your own, “My Gutsy Story” whenever you’re ready. One new one will be featured every Monday on this blog and you can read the guidelines and sponsor prizes offered. More sponsors added all the time. Thanks.