Cowart speaks at Southwestern Photojournalism Conference
FORT WORTH, Texas — Viewing Jeremy Cowart’s celebrity photography portfolio is like paging through a copy of People magazine. Since switching careers from graphic designer to full-time photographer six years ago, the Nashville-based visual artist has photographed some of the most popular singers, entertainers and professional athletes on the planet.
But capturing images of beautiful, wealthy people is not what defines Cowart’s career. Far from it. Instead, it’s a means to what’s really important in his life: using his God-given talent as a platform to help other people.
“People are very impressed with the fact that I’ve worked with Britney Spears, that I’ve shot Sting, that I’ve done all these different things,” said Cowart. “But to me, at end of day I couldn’t care less. If I’m famous at the end of my life, seriously, who cares? It only means something to me to have a platform if I can use that to point to bigger things than myself.”
Cowart spoke to more than 100 photographers and photojournalism students March 5 at the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. The annual conference is sponsored in part by Christians in Photojournalism.
During his presentation, Cowart described how his career evolved and how he has used it as a platform to call attention to humanitarian causes.
After graduating from college in 1999, he began doing graphic design work at an advertising agency and started his own graphic design company in 2001. He purchased his first digital camera (a Canon G1) in 2003 to shoot images used in designing CD covers. “I really fell in love with photography,” he said. “I took that first leap of faith (in 2005) saying, ‘God here we go. I want to be a full-time photographer.'”
That same year he joined friends who traveled to Africa on a mission trip. “I went on this trip, one month long, and just took pictures,” he said. Images from that trip were featured in a photo book created by one of Cowart’s friends in the publishing world.
Back in Nashville, Cowart’s growing portfolio of local musical artists, caught the attention of an agent in Los Angeles who represents photographers. Cowart flew out to L.A. to meet the agent, taking along a copy of his photo book with images from Africa, and was introduced to her television clients. One client, the E! network, saw his images from Africa. “They loved my Africa book and the next thing I know they hired me to shoot a lot of reality TV shows,” he said. “That was the beginning of my relationship with Hollywood clients — from a link to friends in Africa.”
Cowart displayed many of his celebrity photographs and described how determination and initiative helped make them possible. He also sees God’s hand in the progression of his career.
“Most of the things that have happened for me are small steps, these small moments where God has whispered something in my ear,” he said. “A lot of times you’ll hear people say, ‘How do you know God told you?’ It can only be God because, a lot of times I will have an idea hit me so powerfully, so full of detail, that I’m literally scrambling, opening up my iPhone … and typing these ideas as they are hitting me. The process is so fast. It’s literally God saying, boom, there you go. I’m just trying to write them down. That to me, it could only be God.”
Cowart said his goal is not to be “a rock star photographer, but to be excellent at what God has called me to do. To use (his skills) to somehow leave a different type of legacy — for the industry, for my children, whatever.”
Oftentimes people ask him about the celebrities he’s photographed, but Cowart said he would rather talk about the humanitarian projects that he’s initiated.
“People are like, ‘What was it like to work with the Kardashians?’ I’m like, it was fine, but what was really cool is what happened the first time we did Help Portrait, the first time that woman saw herself in that portrait.'”
Help Portrait is a project Cowart started in 2008. He and nine other Nashville photographers got together and held portrait sessions for 60 homeless people, then presented them with photos. “What impacted me was how other photographers responded,” he said. “They said, ‘If you ever do this again, let me know. So that’s what gave me the inspiration to turn this into a bigger thing.”
In 2009, Cowart was asked by photographer and Photoshop expert Scott Kelby to write a guest blog on Kelby’s web site. He used that platform to invite other photographers to hold Help Portrait sessions. “Something amazing happened,” said Cowart. “I had no idea the impact that Help Portrait would have.” On Dec. 12, 2009, hundreds of photographers from 42 countries held portrait sessions for more than 40,000 people.
Help Portrait is now a yearly project. This year’s Help Portrait will be held around the world on Dec. 3, 2011. More information can be found at the Help Portrait site.
Following the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010, Cowart flew to Port-au-Prince with his camera and an idea. He wanted to ask people how they were coping. He traveled the streets and hillsides with an assistant and took photos of Haitians holding up makeshift signs. “My question was simply, ‘What do you have to say about this?'” he asked them.
The collection of 56 portraits, now online at Voices of Haiti, was displayed at the United Nations when world leaders met in March 2010 to discuss Haitian relief efforts. Cowart sold 16″ x 20″ prints for $65 to raise money for A Home in Haiti, which helps rebuild homes for Haitians.
“Those are the things that I look back on and am proud of,” said Cowart. “I don’t really care to have a shelf of awards. I want to have a mental mantle, a place where I can think back at the end of my life and say, ‘Wow, that project I did in Haiti was really fulfilling.’ Or more importantly, the biggest thing so far in my life is the fact that I’ve traveled the world, I’ve worked with all of these celebrities and I have a really amazing marriage. That is such a rare thing these days.”
Cowart was applauded when he told the group that marital fidelity is what makes him complete.
“This is an awkward thing to say publicly, but I’m really proud of fact that I’ve slept with one woman in my entire life,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder, why does our culture celebrate men who sleep around? It takes so much more manpower to stay faithful to your spouse. I really wish our culture would start to celebrate faithfulness.”
In response to a question, Cowart said he saw no conflict working in a culture that is often at odds with his morals. Instead, he believes that is what God asks from people of faith.
“I’m really passionate about truly being in the world and working with people I disagree with,” he said. “I think that’s what we’re supposed to do — to be a light into the world. I’m not going to go as far as shooting nudes. What it boils down to, probably everyone I shoot, I disagree with on issues. But I think it would be silly for me to say, ‘Oh, you’re not a Christian. You don’t go to church, sorry I can’t do this job.’ That Britney Spears tour, I spent three months on a bus with …. a beautiful mix of people. I felt like that’s right where God wanted me to be. I really think that we need to be out in the world and be engaging with the culture.”
While he does not wear his faith on his sleeve, Cowart said, he hopes to inspire by example. “I’m hoping someone can see something different in me, and see that I’m not the typical diva. If they go to my web site they see there’s much more to me than just trying to take pictures. That’s my hope.”
His closing message to photographers was that they all can make a positive impact.
“You guys can do all these things I’m doing. You’ve got the same gifts and you’ve got the same opportunities,” he said. “God has given you a platform, all these relationships, your camera and social media. You’ve seen what all I’ve done in five years. The point to all of this is you can carve out just as an amazing path if you just listen and take those steps of faith.”