All Things: How Faith & Work Changes the World
Words by Johanna Vann
Photos by Jeremy Cowart
Nashville native Jeremy Cowart has one mission in life—to explore the intersection of creativity and empathy. Today, he’s a world-renowned photographer and humanitarian—but getting to this point in his life wasn’t easy. Growing up, his academic struggles led to a profound lack of confidence, and he lived by the words, “I can’t do this.” But his dad was always ready with a little light of hope, topping every “I can’t do this” by quoting Philippians 4:13—”I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Although he failed most of his academic subjects, he excelled creatively, so his mother encouraged him to pursue a degree in graphic design.
After a few years in graphic design, he taught himself photography and eventually captured the attention of a Hollywood agent. A few months later, he found himself shooting for big TV networks and celebrities around the world.
Despite quickly becoming a highly sought-after celebrity photographer, it wasn’t until Jeremy’s first trip to Africa that he learned he could do so much more with his gift than just shoot famous people. It was there he discovered that hope could still live amid devastation; and it can be found by anyone in the simplest of ways.
In the aftermath of the earthquake that virtually destroyed Haiti in 2010, Jeremy was unsettled by the coverage—there was nothing but hours upon hours of footage of the destruction and numbing statistics. Taking action into his own hands, Jeremy traveled to Haiti himself, hoping to tell a different story.
“I try to be a microphone. I want my projects to amplify the voices of those [who] have lost so much and be a vessel that can carry their story.” As he traveled to the devastated region, he simply asked Haitians to pick up any piece of rubble off the ground and to write something on it that they wanted to share with the world. The most beautiful was when he found a couple getting married in a patch of grass next to a leveled church. They picked up a paper plate from the ground and wrote, “Love conquers all.”
This project led him to Rwanda, where he experienced and captured a national movement of forgiveness many years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Victims and their families were choosing to reconcile with those who had committed heinous crimes against their loved ones. Once again, with a camera and a few markers, Jeremy photographed former enemies standing together, along with a joint statement they wanted to share with the world: “Shared past, shared future.”
Jeremy affects change with more than his camera, combining technology with photography, creating new and innovative ways to convey meaning. “With every new invention that arises, I like to ask, ‘How can these innovations help in times of need?’’ When fires raged upon Gatlinburg in 2016, Jeremy used a drone to document the extensive damage. He photographed families lying on a white mattress among the charred remains of their homes and shared the photos with a link to donate to their crowdfunding page.
Today, Jeremy’s working on something wildly different, something he hopes will do even greater work than his photography—a hotel, but not your typical one. Instead, the Purpose Hotel will fuel world-changing organizations and every night’s stay will bring hope and life to people that need it most. For instance, each room will sponsor a child’s education; upgrading your wifi will fund organizations fighting against human trafficking; soaps and blankets will be made by women in developing countries; even the gift shop will be filled with items that make a difference. The first one will call Nashville home, and Jeremy hopes it will grow to become a global chain, where you can “change the world in your sleep.”
Building a world-changing hotel may seem overly ambitious for a guy with zero experience in hotel management, but he’s more focused on flipping a boring industry on its head. To get the ball rolling, he launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 hoping to raise $2 million. The kickstarter fell short—way short—but that didn’t discourage him from trying again because he wasn’t ready to see that dream go. He launched the campaign with a new, more realistic goal and succeeded, proving that not all closed doors are locked shut. The hotel is now quickly moving through the phases of planning and development.
Change doesn’t just occur in the form of scientific discoveries and fancy credentials. It’s born out of people with passion, relentless perseverance, and pure grit.
All it took for Jeremy was a simple rewiring in his self-confidence that allowed him to believe he could use his art to be a vessel that brings light into tragedies. He learned to link his artistic gift to empathy, so as to impact lives and give profound stories of human suffering a life beyond the 24-hour news cycle.
“Go on a humanitarian trip, spend the day volunteering, start small. Plant the seed of an idea and watch it grow and lead you to more ideas,” advises Jeremy. And as many of his early ideas reflect, they may materialize in the form of what seems like a simple idea and yet still have a profound impact on someone’s life.
Jeremy encourages like-minded visionaries to take hold of Philippians 4:13 when crafting world-changing ideas. “Document your ideas and share them with people you trust first. Spend a few weeks reflecting on them too, because time usually tells whether something really is a good idea or not. If the idea continues to develop, grow, and become more thorough in your mind and heart, then you’ll know it’s worth pursuing.”
Believe that you, too, can do all things, and watch as your work begins to transform devastation into hope and light.