Graphic-designer-turned-photographer Jeremy Cowart has shot everyone from author Donald Miller to megastar Britney Spears. Between releasing a few books this year and working on a community-based project called Help Portrait happening this Saturday, Cowart told us about his experience in Africa, his recent fine-art project, touring with Britney Spears and how Twitter affects his business.
Tell us about your visits to Africa.
I’ve been to Africa several times now. Somebody said if you go to Africa with a hard heart you’ll come back with a soft heart, if you go with a soft heart, you’ll come back with a broken heart, and if you go with a broken heart you won’t come back. That sums up what it does to you. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Africa one way or another. I’ve traveled with Hope International, which is an organization that does micro-financing. They give small businesses really small loans to start their business. We’re doing a book that [came] out in November called The Poor Will Be Glad. I also traveled with the Passion crew, Louie Giglio and Chris Tomlin and all those guys, and we’re also working on a book that sums up the world tour, that was shot over three months in 17 countries, coming out this Christmas. I have about 18,000 images that I’ve narrowed down to about 3,000 that will be a part of this book called Awakening.
How has Twitter changed the way you do your job?
A lot of people discount it, but I’ve found just as many practical reasons for having it as I have impractical. A few weeks ago I had a very small-budget shoot in L.A., and I needed assistants who had specific photo gear. I said, “I need two assistants that own their own profoto lighting gear,” and I ended up with actually three assistants that had all the gear I needed. It all came in under budget, and there’s no way I would have been able to do that without Twitter.
I’m playing with the idea of putting together a DVD that would act as a tutorial as a way for people to see how I light things and see what I do in Photoshop, so I posted a message and said, “What would y’all like to see on the DVD?” and I instantly got tons of messages on both Twitter and Facebook. As a person creating a product, I’m able to talk to my audience and find out what they want.
Tell us about your fine-art project.
I had just finished the Britney Spears tour and it was not as creative a gig as I thought it would be, so when I got home I just had to have some kind of creative release. I started drawing these abstract faces and combining photos with drawings and scanning those into the computer, and it turned out to be these children’s portraits that I shot in Africa. They were fairly disturbing, but it reminded me of how the kids in Africa are facing some disturbing stuff, from hunger to rape, but they still greet you with this huge smile and huge hug. It’s like they have knowledge of God that we Americans just don’t quite understand.
Do you have any favorite photographs?
There’s one of Imogen Heap that’s been on my website for a couple years and it seems to be a favorite of everybody’s. And there’s an interesting photo of a guy named Manwell (from Group 1 Crew) on my site in the Composition section, and it’s actually seven photos that I combined into one photograph. It’s called “compositing”—I took a building and some birds and some trees and the sky and Manwell and I mashed them all together to create one photo that looks like it wasn’t combined. I’ve got to mention that I’ve got tons of photos that I think just suck that are even on my website—it’s not like I like everything that’s up there. But I think that’s a healthy thing. It keeps me striving to get better.
What was the Britney Spears tour like?
On a personal level it was a lot of fun. It was genuinely an amazing group of people to work with, and I’d never experienced the tour bus life. I hung out with a lot of the dancers. Basically I just lived a musician’s life, and I always wondered what that was like. As much as I thought it was so romantic and great, it’s actually pretty brutal. Being away from family for that long was just painful. I now have much more respect for musicians. As a photographer and an artist, it was also difficult. I was shooting concerts, which isn’t really something I enjoy, but I made the most of it.
Any tips for up-and-comers?
First of all find out what it is you want to say and what kind of photographer you want to be, and to really hold on to that vision and shoot as much as you can and build that portfolio. If your work is amazing, word will spread fast and the work will find YOU and not vice versa.
Jeremy Cowart’s Must-Haves
- Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles and a Thousand Years: My head was spinning with ideas, inspiration and new perspective all at once and I immediately wanted to re-read. It’s definitely a “must-read.”
- Twitter: This isn’t just a plug for my Twitter account. It’s honestly a must-have. I couldn’t do business without it. I find new, legitimate uses for it daily. I hate trying to explain Twitter to non-Twitter users. You just have to try it for a while before “getting it.”
- Evernote: A must-have app for anyone but especially disorganized creative types like myself. It’s life-changing.
- Imogen Heap’s new album Ellipse: I get annoyed with the way the word “genius” is thrown around so loosely but sometimes I’m convinced she actually is one of the few.
- My iPhone: I know, I know. Obvious answer, but the thing runs my life. There’s life before the iPhone and life after.