A Voice for the Voiceless

With a repertoire of work that includes portraits of internationally acclaimed musicians and heart-wrenching documentations of the condition of Third World countries, photographer Jeremy Cowart often points his camera at things that are much, much larger than himself.

Jeremy Cowart officially launched his photography career in 2005 after spending years as a graphic designer. His clientele includes people such as Sting, Donald Miller, and Imogen Heap, and his portfolio also contains work for various television shows, publications, and many other organizations. But as much as he enjoys working with a wide variety of subjects, Cowart says his heart is most drawn to the lesser known people and places of the world and the stories therein.

Hope for Haiti
In January 2010, as the world watched reports of the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti, an idea began to take shape inside Cowart. He quickly realized that all the reports were showing the death and destruction of Haiti but paying little attention to what the people who had survived had to say.

It seemed so soulless,” Cowart said. “They just weren’t showing the humanity of it. I’m fascinated by our social media these days and how all of us are able to express our opinions at any given time. But people in Third World countries aren’t given that luxury. So I wanted to go down there and give them a chance to express their own voices and opinions.”

Cowart assembled a team, traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and set out to the streets with a concept in mind. As they encountered people around the city, the team asked them to write a brief message the people would like to share with the world. The Haitians then wrote their message on found objects from the rubble and around the city, often sharing their stories with Cowart and his team. Cowart dubbed the series “Voices of Haiti.”

What emerged was a collection of photos telling of the resilience, suffering, hope and conviction of the Haitian people. People shared messages like, “The earth can shake but Haiti remains in my heart,” “I wish I could turn back time,” “Oh, the things I’ve seen!” and “I will rise from my ashes.” Cowart said he struggled to be both emotionally and professionally present, and at times he and his team were often overwhelmed at the stories they heard.

“There were times that were very emotional and heavy,” Cowart said, reflecting on a story of a man they met who was shell-shocked, heartbroken, and searching for his only daughter. All the man had left of his daughter was her driver’s license. His written message read, “May her soul rest in peace.”

“Being in Haiti, I experienced everything from anger to shock to devastation to sadness to, at times, joy and hope and perseverance—that doesn’t even make sense,” Cowart said. “It’s really hard to sum up what it was like to be there.”

Another story that Cowart found to be particularly moving occurred when he received a call from a friend one day while driving around Port-au-Prince. His friend told him a wedding was happening that day, even in the midst of aftershocks and dire circumstances. The team drove around until they found the wedding, which had just finished near the crumbled remains of a church. After shooting a few wedding photos for the couple, they found a paper plate in the rubble and wrote their message to the world. It read, “Love conquers all.” Cowart said that photo is among one of his favorites from the project. Moved deeply by his experience in Haiti, he plans to return as soon as he can.

“I heard this saying about Africa,” he said. “‘’If you go to Africa with a hard heart, you’ll come back with a soft heart. If you go to Africa with a soft heart, you’ll come back with a broken heart. If you go to Africa with a broken heart, you won’t come back.’ The same could be said of Haiti.”

Beyond the Lens

Beginning in March, a new photo was posted every day to the Voices of Haiti website for several weeks in a row. Cowart sold the photos as high-quality prints and all proceeds went to an organization known as A Home in Haiti, which has in turn bought tents for the many Haitians in need of shelter.

As the series unveiled, Cowart said people have responded with stories of being inspired to go to Haiti to help with relief work. He even heard a story of a family that decided to adopt a child from Haiti after seeing his photos. In April, he received word that a selection of the series was chosen to adorn a hallway in the building where world leaders from the U.S., UN and Haiti were meeting. During that meeting, $10 billion was dedicated to rebuild Haiti. Cowart said he was amazed and humbled to see an idea that started one night while he was at home become something shown to international leaders.

Many of Cowart’s past projects have also had a much further-reaching impact than he first anticipated. In December 2009, he helped rally people worldwide to take a photo of a person in need. The project, known as Help-Portrait, yielded more than 40,000 photos and spanned 42 countries. In the end, the portraits taken were given back to the people in them, with the intention of helping them to see their own beauty and worth. People were also encouraged to take things like canned goods, blankets, and clothing to the subjects they photographed. Both CNN and CBS Evening News ran specials on the project.

In 2008, Cowart embarked upon a 40-country journey with the Passion World Tour. His job was to document the events on the tour along with the cities and the people in them. Cowart had the opportunity to document cities as far and wide as Tokyo, London, and Kampala, among many others. A book of images, titled Awakening, was assembled from the massive variety of shots Cowart gathered during the three-month tour.

In the midst of a busy professional life, Cowart is also a family man and keeps close ties with a handful of friends who spur him on both creatively and in his faith. From his home base in Nashville, Tennessee, he tracks alongside a group of friends who are Christians and working as musicians, photographers, and graphic designers.

“All of us are very close and have known each other for years,” Cowart said. “They’re always creating amazing work, and it pushes me. I would like to think I’m doing the same for them. There’s a strong artistic community in Nashville that I really love.”

Cowart said he feels that Christians, especially in the creative field, are called to reach others by presenting work that is excellent and compelling. Focusing on his life calling to make a difference in the world with his work, Cowart is continually sharpening his skills as a photographer and delving into new projects. And though he loves the church and the strong community within, he also wants his work to impact people from all walks of life.

“I’d rather people at large be influenced by my work, not just Christians,” Cowart said. “For me, it’s about being progressive and using your gifts to make an impact.”  

To view the Voices of Haiti series, visit www.voicesofhaiti.com. Photos and information about Help-Portrait can be found at www.help-portrait.com. A portfolio of Cowart’s work, along with much more, can be found at www.jeremycowart.com.

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Rachel Wegner makes her living as a writer, but often moonlights as a photographer and a musician. She currently resides in Tulsa, OK, and is an active member of the 24-7 Prayer movement.