Jeremy Cowart Opens Up About Creative Ambitions and Obstacles

December 27, 2019

By Libby Peterson

All Photos © Jeremy Cowart

1. It’s evident in your work that you welcome lots of experimentation. How did you become comfortable to test the creative boundaries on your channels? The temptation to “stay in your lane” is palpable in the industry.

I think it’s mostly just in my blood and who I am as a person. I get bored easily. I’ve always considered myself to be ADD. Digital photography is incredible and so consistent, which can also become boring very quickly. I have to be trying new things and experimenting or I mentally check out. This year I reinvented how I light, shoot and edit, which made photography really interesting and fun again. As far as “staying in my lane,” I never think about it. I think one of the roles of the artist is to always ignore that line of thinking. I couldn’t care less about what the current trends are and what everyone else is doing. I really don’t even follow many “photographers to know.” Most of what I follow online are painters and illustrators.

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2. You’ve been very involved with the nonprofit world and philanthropy, and you run some brands outside of your own photography business. Have you always been entrepreneurial, or did something in particular influence your path?

I got bored of making photography all about myself. I reached a very high level of success early in my career but realized I didn’t want to just be another photographer rock star. I wanted my success to point to something greater than myself. I became intrigued with the idea of, can a camera and storytelling truly help in times of need? It turns out that it can make a massive difference. The projects I’ve done overseas are far more important and fulfilling to me than the celebrities I’ve photographed.

(Cowart is the founder of The Purpose Hotel, a hotel chain that’s set up to support nonprofit organizations, as well as Help-Portrait, a photolanthropy platform. He began OKDOTHIS, a photography inspiration app that was acquired by Eyefi in 2015, and the online educational outlet See University.)

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3. What do you hope to accomplish in 2020?

I hope to break ground on The Purpose Hotel. It’s a dream and idea seven years in the making. I hope 2020 is our big year to get it going.

4. The whole concept of focusing your mind has become huge in the last few years, especially among creatives. We see that in the rise of meditation as a commonly discussed way of releasing tension and honing thoughts. What do you do in this regard, particularly as someone who’s busy juggling projects?

I’m not sure I do anything specific. But a clear calendar and a day alone in my studio is therapy for me. The older I get, the more of an introvert I become.

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5. If you could redo or alter one thing in your life, what would it be?

I would have been a better money manager. Photographers and creatives need to study business and money management much more urgently than they need to study Photoshop or lighting. Very few get that right, including myself.

6. What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Our president.

7. You discovered earlier this year that you have Friedreich’s Ataxia. How has it impacted you now that some time has passed with this knowledge?

I’m always keenly aware of how short life is. I lost my older brother, who was also a photographer, to a heart attack a few years ago; he was 43 years old. So, having my own disease—and not a fatal disease, by the way—just makes me that much more aware. It is what it is. I just need to take really good care of myself. 

(Friedreich’s Ataxia is a rare disease that results in loss of coordination and muscle strength, as well impaired vision, speech and hearing. It can lead to excessive fatigue and heart disease.)

8. Aside from this, what is something that you suspect few people know about you?

Maybe that music was my first love. I sang professionally as a kid and actually have quite an extensive discography [laughs]. I sang backup for lots of huge artists as a child with some other kids. (John Denver and Willie Nelson among them.) We were little BGV (background vocal) rock stars. Then I had a band in college. But after that, I jumped head first into art and design. Photography didn’t come until years after college when I was 28.

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9. You came out with a new book, I’m Possible, earlier this year. You’ve mentioned “starting out as a failure” in life. In what way?

Every way. I didn’t make good grades as a kid. I couldn’t focus on anything. I got a D in my only college photography class and nearly failed. I got fired from my first ad agency job and was told I wasn’t creative enough. There were plenty of failures and continue to be.

10. It’s one thing to say you should engage your purpose to change the world; it’s another to understand how to do that. What’s your advice to someone who’s taking those words to heart but isn’t sure of how to implement it into action?

Be patient. It takes time to figure out your journey to giving back as a career path. It took me at least 15 years to start figuring that out. But I think as long as you treat everyone equally and do your best to love everyone, you’re changing the world already.  

Jeremy Cowart is an entrepreneur & photographer who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and four children, two of whom they adopted from Haiti.