Interview with Jeremy Cowart

Meet Jeremy Cowart, recently identified as “The Most influential Photographer on the Web”, as published by The Huffington Post.

About Jeremy

At his core, Jeremy is an artist. Starting out as a painter first, Jeremy fell in love with the creative process. He then went on to study graphic design in college and founded his own graphic design company, Pixelgrazer, in 2001. Jeremy really only began taking pictures to bring texture into his design work. But before he knew it, he realized that photography was his true passion. So in April of 2005, Jeremy switched over to it full time and he has never looked back. In a relatively short amount of time, Jeremy earned the respect of artists, photographers, and celebrities alike. Now hailed as one of the trailblazers in the industry, Jeremy sees photography as a natural extension of his passion for the arts.

Jeremy has taken portraits of many familiar names such as Taylor Swift, Tim Tebow, The Kardashians, Sting, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Heidi Klum, Gwyneth Paltrow, The Civil Wars, Emma Stone, Courtney Cox, and Ryan Seacrest, just to name a few. His clients, mostly entertainment based, include ABC, FOX, A&E, F/X, Discovery Channel, ESPN, People, US Weekly, VIBE, E!, Universal Records, Sony Records and Warner Brothers Records. His work has been published in Rolling Stone, ESPN Magazine, People Magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, NYTimes, TIME, Nylon and more.

There’s always something interesting going on in Jeremy’s world. His humanitarian projects have been featured on CNN.com as international leading headlines twice, he shot the cover of Tim Tebow’s NY Times best-selling autobiography, and he recently starred in an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. In addition to all that, Jeremy is something of a social media/technology guru. He’s a featured user on Google+ with over a million followers, he won the Celebrity TwitChange campaign last year that raised thousands of dollars to fight global poverty, and he’s currently working on his first iPhone app to be released Summer 2012.

Photography has taken Jeremy to six continents. He traveled with Britney Spears in 2009 as her “Circus World Tour” photographer, documented seventeen countries with the Passion World Tour in 2008, and has been on numerous trips to Africa and Haiti with various organizations. From all his travels, Jeremy has released 3 Photography books, “Hope in the Dark“, “The Poor Will Be Glad” and “Awakening“, and he’s currently working on a 4th new book, “What’s Your Mark?” with Zondervan Publishers due out Fall 2012.

Jeremy also spends his time on community projects, brainstorming innovative ways to use his camera to make an impact. In January 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Jeremy responded with his “Voices of Haiti” photo essay, letting the people of Haiti write their own thoughts and prayers on found rubble. This project was displayed prominently at the entrance of a very important gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in March of 2010. They were meeting to discuss the rebuild of Haiti and they ended up pledging ten billion dollars to the effort. On that day, Jeremy’s “Voices of Haiti” project proved that art can help change the world.

In August of 2011, Jeremy traveled to Rwanda with filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson to document survivors and perpetrators of genocide who have reconciled and are living life together peacefully in the same community. Inspired by the “Voices of Haiti” photo essay, the portraits in this series captured genocide survivors standing with the killers of their families, who they’ve now forgiven. Many of the portraits were captured at the scene of the crime to help display the power of true forgiveness. The series ended up being featured on CNN.com as a worldwide leading headline on Monday, November 7th, 2011.

Knowing the value that a photograph can have in just one person’s life, Jeremy also founded Help-Portrait, a worldwide movement of photographers using their time, equipment, and expertise to give back to those less fortunate. On December 12, 2009, the first world-wide Help-Portrait event provided free portraits for over 40,000 people in 42 Countries. Those numbers have increased significantly over the last 2 years, with 169,523 photos given to date in at least 56 countries. Help-Portrait continues to grow, encouraging all photographers to use their platform to make a difference with their cameras.

Lastly, Jeremy’s speaking and teaching career has taken off as he spends his time annually traveling around the country speaking at conferences like TEDx, Catalyst Conference, Photoshop World, WPPI, Google Plus Photographers Conference, Photo Plus Expo and many more. He has also hosted 2 of his own LifeFinder Tour’s that have taken him all across the country. His LifeFinder Tour is based on his educational DVD, LifeFinder. Jeremy is also an instructor for Scott Kelby’s “Kelby Training” and has released 3 classes on the Kelby Training website.

Jeremy is a crock pot of ideas, always on low simmer. He doesn’t sleep enough. His mind won’t let him. Whether it’s the next shoot, the next talk, the next book, the next app, or the next humanitarian project, Jeremy just doesn’t stop. And that’s why his career keeps moving forward.

Bouncing back and forth between Nashville and LA, Jeremy draws a lot of inspiration from his amazing wife, Shannon, and their two ridiculously cute and utterly fantastic kids, Adler and Eisley. They also have a dog and a cat, but they are not as inspirational.

Click to read Transcript

EASLEY: We are in studio today with Jeremy Cowart. Jeremy started out first as a painter. What’d you paint? Watercolors? Oil? All of it?

COWART:Yeah, a little bit of everything; acrylics and oil, abstract

E: How old were you?

C: Highschool and college. Yeah.

E: You went on to study graphic design. You started a company, Pixelgrazer in 2001! What were you doing with Pixelgrazer?

C: I just realized all my friends in town were musicians and writers so started designing for my friends.

E: So, CD liners and power covers and…

C: Yeah

E: You found out in 2005ish, that you were a photographer?

C: A friend of mine said to me, “You should get a digital camera.” It was still kind of earlier on and I bought one of those and just realized how much I loved shooting and I fell in love with it.

E: In a relatively short time, you are rocketed into taking portraits of Taylor Swift, Tim Tebow, The Kardashians, Sting, The Civil Wars, Emma Stone, Courtney Cox, Ryan Seacrest, Imogen Heap. You even took my picture. Can I put that in there?

C: We have; we’ve knocked that out.

E: You’ve worked with ABC, Fox, A&E, F/X, Discovery, Channel, ESPN, People, US Weekly, on and on it goes. Most recently, you’ve gotten some traction with FAST with OKDOTHIS,

C: Oh, Fast Company.

E: A new app that has,..my son in law has a little handprint in that.

C: That’s right, that’s right.

E: That’s fun. Time Magazine.

Talk a little bit about, how does a believer walk into those kinds of jobs? Do they know where you’re coming from? Do they know your story?

C: I’d say most of the time, they don’t. I mean, when I’m shooting a celebrity, no, I’m just another photo shoot; another thing to do in their journey. A lot of times literally, I don’t even get time to say, “Hello.” and meet. A lot of times, It’s like bam, bam, bam, you walk in and you shoot. But there are other times when I get to travel and really get to know people. That trip to Iceland I recently did with Imogen Heap, I mean it was just she and I, an assistant and her boyfriend. The four of us drove around in Iceland in a car together so it just depends on the experience, but I really feel alive and really walking where I’m supposed to be when I’m working with people of opposing or different beliefs. I love it. I think it’s just incredible!

E: Expand on that a little.

C: Just, you know one of my favorite experiences was: I toured with Britney Spears for three months and I was thrown in a tour bus with her dancers and a lot of people in the tours, entertainers and, I mean, not only were we different belief systems but we were the Russian, the German, the Hispanic guy, the African American. I was literally the only white person and belief wise we had me the Christian; we had atheists, gays, lesbians, you name it. Traveling for three months on this tour bus, I just loved the opportunity to share what I believed, but also to listen to them and what they believe in and to show them that not all Christians are extremely judgemental and hateful towards other systems. I dont know, I love trying to reverse that direction that the Christian brand seems to go, which is all judgement and hate; I don’t know. I feel like we’ve really got a bad brand out there.

E: How do you respond to in the world, but not of the world?

C: I certainly don’t think of myself as a scholar on these topics, but from your normal average guy perspective, I just try to love people and listen a lot. I love to listen and ask questions and  just try to be Christ the best way that I can without throwing out judgement. I’ve had to work with a lot of people whose beliefs I don’t necessarily agree with, but I love those opportunities because I learn from them. I just recently photographed a family that the show Big Love is based on so it’s a man and his four wives, so we shot their book cover out in LA, and just such a wonderful day, just listening and respecting each other. You know, I’m not going to change, or try to change their belief systems in an eight hour photo shoot and so we just talked about our beliefs and there was no arguing; there was no fighting. This is why we believe in, what we believe in. We talked about my beliefs and it was just beautiful. So I just love to justI listen and try to love people no matter what.

E: As a creative person, do you think you’re wired that way? Is that a fair question?

C: I do. From being a kid, just being laid back; I hate conflict; I hate arguing; I hate so many things that are going on in the culture right now, just all the back and forth. I’m so tired of it. I just dream of this world where we can all disagree, but still respect each other. That’s definitely what I long for.

E: You also have a heart for community projects?

C: Yes.

E: The Voices of Haiti after the earthquake?

C: Yeah, yeah, just sitting on my couch like the rest of the world at the time; just in disbelief watching CNN. I felt like the media was like “ Look at all these dead bodies; look at all the buildings that fell down.”  There wasn’t really any story to it, so at the time Twitter and social media weren’t as big internationally, so a lot of Haitians weren’t really on Twitter at the time, but I just thought, “What if they could tweet, what would those people be telling the world right now? What would they be broadcasting?” Then the media wasn’t really doing that so hopped on a flight and went down there myself and ….

E: Just by yourself?

C: Yeah, no organization, just by myself went down there and asked people “What would you have to tell the world right now?” It was only a week after the earthquake so there were still aftershocks and dead bodies laying around. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was like being in a war zone; people screaming; fire on every street corner; just chaos. So it was amazing to see what people had to say during those moments.

E: In 2011, you found yourself going to Rwanda. Tell us a little bit about that experience.

C: Yes, it’s kind of a follow up to the Haiti project. I spoke at a conference where my friend, Laura Waters Hinson did a project on forgiveness in Rwanda. Here we are twenty years after the genocide and people are forgiving each other for murder and it’s just crazy. It’s a crazy thought! I asked her, “What if we did my project, like I did it in Haiti, but did it with the people you’re working with in Rwanda?” So the idea was to go interview these people who had forgiven the killers of these families, and do a portrait of them together, and not only that but to shoot the portrait at the scene of the crime.

E: For our audience, let’s remind them. There were over eight hundred thousand people killed in the Rwanda massacres, buried in shallow graves as far as the eye can see, and you’re talking to…these would have been children then? at that time…

C: Yeah…

E:..when the massacre occurred. So you’re talking to them and the individuals that murdered their family members?

C: And like I said, at the scenes of the crime, we went back to where it happened, and in some cases we even had the actual weapon that was used. So yeah, it was completely insane. In America, I can’t imagine many Americans saying, “Yeah, I’ll go do a photoshoot at the scene where this guy killed my family.” We’ll go laugh, and we’ll forgive each other, like that doesn’t’ happen.

It was just beyond inspiring to have those conversations and to see them walking through this process of reconciliation.

E: How do you begin to fathom that?

C: Oh gosh.

E: If someone killed your two precious children and your wife, how could you then laugh and smile with them over a gravesite?

C: Yeah, I have no idea. Yeah, I literally can’t even fathom, because it’s so hard to believe, but to be there and to see it happening over and over and over. Granted it was twenty years and they’ve all been through the reconciliation program, but still, you know that’s quite a massive feat. A lot of people haven’t and that’s why these people are so amazing because they are some of the few who have chosen to forgive.

It was crazy because I didn’t know what to do with that project, but when I got home a few months later and I got an email like, “Hey, we’re launching this new photography blog, and we’d love to share anything new you’ve got.” I said, “Well I did this thing in Rwanda and I don’t know what to do with it.” It happened to be the new photo blog for CNN so the next thing I knew this project was the leading worldwide headline, Could You Forgive Your Families Killer? So it was just amazing to see how God plants these ideas, and then has a plan for them later, after the fact.

E: You also moved into a project, I found fascinating just hearing you talking about it earlier today: this Help Portrait. Fascinating concept! So you’re working with some people that have been abused, difficult backgrounds, halfway houses. Tell us a little bit about the Help Portrait.

C: Sure, in 2008 I had a very simple idea to do an event locally here in Nashville for a local Rescue Mission for families in need. We just did photo shoots for them, gave them the full experience, hair and makeup, just made them look beautiful, played with their kids, and just had a great day doing photography. After that day, we made a video; we put it on Facebook and eight people commented, “Hey, if you ever do this again, I’d love to do it with you.” It was in those eight comments, I mean we’re talking very little, but I realized in that moment, this could be a much bigger deal. This could be a global kind of thing and so nine months later in August 2009, I launched the idea on my blog, and other people helped me spread the word, and then we had our first global event in 2009 of December and people participated in I think it was forty-three countries, in over forty states in America. It instantly became this global movement and ever since then we’ve just been doing it all over the world every December.

A woman told me the other day, “The only photo I’ve ever had taken was my jail mugshot.

E: Wow!

C: We have cellphones, we have so many things these days to take pictures, that they’re nothing to us, they’re meaningless to us. Everybody can take a picture, but there’s still the majority of the world who doesn’t have a camera, that can just snap a picture of themselves.

E: I know it’s probably impossible to answer. I was on the photo lab side of things back when  there was still film and developing, and custom printing. When you look through a viewfinder, or when you’re teaching somebody, the difference between you doing it and some hack like me, what’s the difference in your opinion? That you can take an image that we can look at on a website and our mouth hangs open, going, “My word, how does he see it that way?”

C: I don’t know. I think it’s just knowing light really, really well and knowing composition. You know, I think when most people look through a camera they’re just looking at their subject and I’m almost looking at the background more than I’m looking at the foreground, because I’m very aware of how you are interacting with the door frame behind you and how that light switch is a distraction; and how if I put your head over that board right there it’s going to…you know, I’m thinking about the balance of shapes and lines around you as well as how the light is affecting you. I think you just learn to…It’s like learning to ride a bike. Once you start learning those things and learning how to see, it just makes a huge difference and even in the most basic of images.

E: Can you ever turn it off?

C: Uhhh. Yes, I’m constantly seeing things and I do shoot all the time even when I’m not on photoshoot, and I shoot my kids everyday, but it never really bothers me. Sometimes it bothers my wife. The other night we were in a rush to see a concert and we were running late and I had stopped to shoot a picture of these bugs swarming around the light and she’s still running to the show and she got annoyed and literally stopped to post on Facebook about her distracted husband photographing the bugs.

E: You speak some; you teach some; you’ve done Tedx, Catalyst Conferences, Photoshop World, WPPI, Google Plus Photography Conference, PhotoPlus Expo. Do you like doing those events?

C: I do, I mean I don’t think of myself as a speaker. I’m not really trying to be the next, whatever, you know. I don’t think I’m of myself as a writer either. But I do enjoy the process of trying to motivate people and inspire people through just pursuing ideas and trying to help people. So I do enjoy sharing what I’ve done and talking about it in a way that hopefully inspires somebody out there; it’s always a love-hate thing. I don’t think of myself as a great speaker, but I do share very emotionally. I end up crying every time I speak. The other night I spoke in front of a big group and talked about my brother passing away this year and of course, I just wept like a baby, not like cool crying, but ugly crying you know where it’s really awkward for the audience.

E: I do understand.

C: But anyway, yeah, it’s cool.

E: Since you brought that up. Take us there. Your brother passed away, its been a few months now.

C:  It’s been a tough year. It was March 2, I was flying to Vegas and my brother was flying to Hawaii, so we were actually at the airport at the same time, and we were texting back and forth. I had flown to Vegas and his flight got cancelled because there was a storm that day. I was on stage speaking and I had just started a talk in front of five hundred people and I got a 911 text and my sister in law told me, “My brother had been found unconscious and they weren’t sure what was going on.” I was obviously alarmed because I had to keep talking because I’m in the middle of this thing.

E: So you’ve got your phone with you and you get this text?

C: Yeah, and then my phone kept ringing about twenty minutes later into the talk. An audience member interrupted me and said, “You need to answer your phone.” because I had already told them that something important was happening. Anyway, so I go answer the call and it was my dad saying, “My brother had just passed away of a sudden heart attack.” He had worked out earlier in the day and was fine; was healthy; we never had any clue anything was wrong, so it was as surprising as it gets to lose my brother. I had to tell the audience; I had a two hour talk; I had a long way to go. I told them, “ I’m sorry, but I literally just lost my brother and I have to leave.” That was of course the day there was a massive ice storm hit Nashville and all the airports were closed and it was a really tough day. My family wanted me home and I won’t say who, and he won’t allow me to say his name, but somebody ended up flying me  home that night on a private jet just to get me home with my family. It’s like the nicest thing anybodies ever done and so it’s been really, really difficult. I’ve got one other brother so it’s just the two of us now.

E: We all have something. We have cancer; we have bad backs; we have MS; we have you name it,  Alzheimer’s, Dementia, this came early.

C: Yeah, forty-three. He was twice my size but all muscle, just a really big strong healthy guy; good looking as it gets; you just think he’s got his whole life ahead of himself. Just like that. Oddly, enough I lost two more friends within the next month of this exact same thing, all below the age of forty. I had gone to lunch two weeks after with a friend in LA, a filmmaker. He was kind of consoling me, and just saying how, we just had a great lunch together. Two weeks after our lunch, he died the exact same way. He was found in his photo studio, just died of a sudden heart attack. Yeah, it’s just nuts man. Every day is definitely is more special now, trying to enjoy every moment with my family.

E: I often say this life is at best is a clean bus station. We’re trying to make it home;  we’re trying to make it permanent, comfortable, and it’s not. It’s transitory.

C: Yup.

E: We just don’t know our time.

Let’s shift a little bit and talk about people who are listening, maybe some young twenty somethings. They love photography; they love art; they love whatever, and they don’t know how in the world to get started. What to do with it?  Maybe they’re not even understood by parents or others. What would you say to them?

C: Yeah, there’s a lot I could say. I think one of the main things people need to really stop doing is, comparing themselves. You know it’s so easy to view your instagram feeds and to go on Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook and just compare, compare, compare. I’ll never be that good. I’ll never be that rockstar, photographer, whatever. But you just got to start shooting. It’s whole ten thousand hour thing; just start putting in the hours and start shooting like crazy. There are a lot of great, great photographers; there’s thousands of them, great artists, but the important thing is to really focus on the ideas and the type of things you’re passionate about vs. perfecting the art of photography. Anybody can learn to retouch and learn photoshoot; anybody can learn to light; anybody can learn to take a good picture, but few really make interesting unique work or have a unique voice. That really, I’m sure applies to anything, to music, but time and time again I see people come out of all the noise who has a unique voice. There’s one guy that shoots with a basic point and shoot, doesn’t even know photoshop and doesn’t like anything; doesn’t  have all the gear; just one camera, and has an amazing platform and career. There’s now Instagram rockstars and I know guys with half a million followers on Instagram that just shoot with their phone, but they’re doing something interesting. There’s that humans of New York that I was just looking at a few minutes ago and it’s a guy, and all he’s doing is telling people stories in New York, just real simple, like one paragraph and it’s just blown up. There’s four million followers on Facebook and all he’s doing is basic shot on the street of New York, no lighting, no nothing, telling a story and people are just so engaged and they just want to hear and know stories from fellow humans, you know. It’s beautiful.

E: Talk a little bit about your walk with Christ and all this, as a follower of Christ and a creative person with endless energy. Unpack it for us.

C: Actually, I think it was one morning when you were speaking at Fellowship, I have always been paranoid about my walk, that I’m not this super prayer every day. I’m not constantly in the Word; I’m not  doing all these things, but when you grow up as a Christian you think, “You’re bad if you’re not having your thirty minute daily quiet time and doing this, and this, and this.” Thing is you just said, “Sometimes conversations are just one way and you’re just listening.” I’ve always felt like God just speaks to me constantly and I’m just always just trying to listen and a lot of people talk about ideas, but I always feel like those ideas are just… I have to give God credit because they come out of no where and they’re so clear and they’re so present and they’re so fast.

My idea for a portrait, I think, was when I was eating at a Logan’s Roadhouse, with my in laws and family and I’m sitting there eating fried chicken watching sports on the TV overhead and all of a sudden there’s this massive idea. It comes like that and the next thing I know, a year later it’s in forty countries so I think a lot of people have those ideas but I think a lot of people live in fear or “I can’t do that,” “I don’t have a platform,” “ I’m not special enough,” “I’m not good enough.” I just love that moment of jumping off that cliff, “Alright, God, It’s yours.You’ve given it to me. I’m going to jump and see what happens.” Each time I’ve done that, I’ve just gained more and more confidence. I’ve got another dream right now to do something way bigger than any of that and I’ve lived in two years and just so terrified of it because it’s so big, but I know that it’s another one of those kind of divine God spoken things that happened in a flash and so, yeah, I just try to do my best on a day to day in loving my family, and those around me, trying to pursue these grand ideas that God’s giving me and really enjoying that process. I don’t think of myself as a photographer or really any of those labels. I just think of myself as an idea guy and it’s all God spoken.

E: If there’s one thing that summed up Jeremy Cowart?

C: I don’t know. I really don’t. First thing that comes to mind; I think ADD, spacy, forgetful, uh..

E: (laughter) Let me ask it this way, how would Shannon describe you?

C: She would definitely say, “He loves his family. She knows how much I love her and my children. Hopefully that would be the first thing, but as far as like a from a career standpoint just always, always dreaming, it’s really hard for me to turn that part off. I can turn the photography part off, but I can’t turn the ideation process off. I’ve always got an idea, and it’s to the point in which it can be a problem because from week to week, “ I’m going to focus on this now. This is what I’m going to do with my life,” and the next week, “No, no, no, I’m going to be an artist now. No, no, no, I’m going to start speaking and teaching.”  The next week I’m like, “Forget that, No, no, no I’m going to…” So there’s always something new that I want to do. So she would probably say something along those lines. “He’s just a dreamer.”

E: Are you your own worst critic?

C: Oh for sure. Yeah, always.  I don’t hate my work, but I don’t sit there and dwell on my own work, and think “ Oh, that was awesome.” You’re constantly looking at your own work thinking, “Ahh, that’s not that great.”

E: If I had another hundred hours I could make a better shot.

C: Yeah, of course. Always.

E: Jeremy Cowart, it’s been great to have you in studio today and we look forward to seeing what God is going to do with you next.

C: Thank you

E: To find out more about Jeremy Cowart, you can go to Michael inContext.com and we will link you to his many websites. Also want to encourage you to download the OKDOTHIS app. OKDOTHIS -all one word, app and you’ll have a lot of fun learning about Jeremy and how you can engage in that application with your pictures and your ideas. Well this is Michael Easley inContext.

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