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Jeremy Cowart: Use Your Success to Talk About Things That Matter

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
photo & video

jeremy cowart

Join Jeremy Cowart for his upcoming class, Lighting For Your Target Audience.

Celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart says it’s a misconception that he entire life is a party. Sure, he toured with Britney Spears for three months, and has shot some of the biggest names in music and entertainment. But the most charmed part of his life, he says, is just that he gets to get up every day and do what he loves — and help people while he does it.

“My worst day working for myself is better than my best day working for someone else. Even to this day, I still have those low, low valleys — but those low valleys are still better and more worth it than when I was building websites for ad agencies,” Jeremy said during his CreativeLive Photo Week class, The Bigger Picture: Why We Do What We Do.

And recently, Jeremy has experienced some lows in his personal life; in March of 2014, during his WPPI talk in Las Vegas, he learned of his brothers’ passing. Photography, says Jeremy, has helped him process that loss. Because photography — and particularly digital photography — is changing the way that we relate to each other, and how we remember each other. Photography has become a powerful tool, both for those of us who are living now, and those who will come in the future.

“If you’re alive right now, you’re the beginning of your family tree, digitally-speaking. You’re leaving this crazy legacy,” he explains.

jeremy cowart

Photo: Jeremy Cowart

Jeremy walks the walk, and has helped countless others leave their legacy. He’s the author of What’s Your Mark?, a book about how to use photography to help people. He’s been on several humanitarian trips, wherein he both shoots the residents and talks to the people impacts. His Voices of Haiti project spurred the UN to create a huge rebuilding effort for Haiti following the 2011 earthquake.

He’s also the founder of Help-Portrait, a charitable organization that pairs photographers with people in need to provide portraits that they can keep or give as gifts. No money is exchanged, and the pieces are not for portfolios — they’re solely for the purpose of giving individuals the power of beautiful images of themselves and their families.

“Photographers in over 40 countries responded and did events for people in their communities,” he said of the first Help-Portrait day of service, “I was blown away. We all have our iPhones, we all have our cameras, so photos don’t mean that much anymore — or it doesn’t feel like a special process to us. But it really is a very special experience to people.”

And that, says Jeremy, is the best advice he can give: To turn any amount of success or notoriety into a way to help other people, to give them voices and to leave a legacy.

“If you do achieve success, use that platform to point to something amazing.” says Jeremy. “In the photo industry, I have this small platform, and I love to use that world of commercial to talk about things that matter.”

Currently, Jeremy says, he’s working on a new humanitarian project. Last year, he traveled to Uganda to visit a friend who works with former child soldiers using art therapy. There, he taught the children how to us Photoshop, and encouraged them to draw and paint their experiences with a Wacom tablet. Those pieces will, he said, come together as a multimedia piece that will help fund the art therapy program.

“It’s amazing,” he says, “those are the stories I want my kids to know. It’s not the Taylor Swift or whatever. This is what it’s all about.”

Of course, says Jeremy, photographers need to make money — the commercial element is essential to having a successful business — and giving away too much work for free can be detrimental to your career.

“It can get really hard,” he says, “There are a lot of shoots I’m not proud of. But I really, really urge you to do this. If you can find a way to make it work, it is just an immensely amazing journey.”

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.