The Purpose Hotel
NASHVILLE SINCE BIRTH
Photographer, inventor, designer, creator, philanthropist, and innovator are just a few words that describe Jeremy Cowart. But in relating his life story, he might bring up another descriptor: full of self-doubt. “I was always telling my mom and dad, ‘I can’t do this,’” Jeremy recalls in the now-viral video of his life story. He never thought he was smart, confirmed by an aptitude test his senior year that placed him in the 5th percentile in categories like analytical reasoning and english vocabulary. “Perfect. It’s now been confirmed that I am a complete and total moron,” he says.
But with art, he felt differently. “Something came alive in me whenever I would create,” he shares in the video. He aspired to be a painter, but his parents gently suggested he try graphic design as a more lucrative choice. Though again, he thought he couldn’t do it, but he pushed through and discovered he loved it. After college, he was hired by one of the top ad agencies, and worked in the advertisement industry for a few years before delving into another seemingly daunting new skill: digital photography.
As his photography skills grew and he started photographing his musician friends, his advertising clients took notice. He was eventually discovered by a Hollywood agent, who offered to represent him. In a few short months, he was photographing some of the hottest celebrities in pop culture.
Jeremy has photographed major celebrities across all fields, from the Kardashians to Gwyneth Paltrow to Taylor Swift. He photographed Barack Obama on his first day in office. He photographed Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S. In 2014, he topped Huffington Post’s list of “30 Most Influential Photographers on the Internet," and in 2015 AdWeek named him one of “10 Visual Artists Who Are Changing the Way We See Advertising, and the World.”
But at the top of his game, Jeremy wondered, “So what?” He decided he wanted to connect photography to a greater sense of purpose. Despite daunting odds and the ever-nagging “I can’t do this,” Jeremy jumped in, in a big way. He organized a day where he would photograph those in need for free; the annual project has now photographed over half a million portraits across 70 countries. Some were able to apply for jobs with their new, professional headshot; some were able to recreate family photos lost in a natural disaster. In a third world country, a boy was able to see his own face for the first time.
Jeremy didn’t stop there. When the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Jeremy was struck by the media’s emphasis on stats and not people’s stories. He flew down there himself, and took pictures of people posing with something written that they wanted to share with the world. The project, which Jeremy released a day at a time, eventually caught the eye of the United Nations. They arranged his portraits down a hallway leading to a major meeting on the event with world leaders, at which 10 billion dollars were pledged to help Haiti.
The incredible ways in which Jeremy’s photography has helped people continues. In 2011, he traveled to Rwanda, where he photographed genocide victims who had reconciled with the person who had murdered their families, often before their eyes. In his series, the two pose together at the exact spot where the murder took place.
The Purpose Hotel is Jeremy’s next big mission to create change in the world. “I was in a hotel five years ago for a meeting and the idea just hit me over the head during a meeting, where I just realized there could be a hotel where literally everything in the building is connected to a cause or a nonprofit,” he says. “I was scared of it for three years and didn’t do anything about it.”
The project is daunting; Jeremy aims to create not just a hotel but a global chain, where each element, from the art and food to the shampoo and internet serve a greater purpose. The hotel keys, for example, are in conjunction with The Giving Key, which employs the homeless. “It’s ridiculous – it’s overwhelming,” he says of the scope of the project. “There’s a million steps we’ve already taken and there’s 10 million more to go.”
While it’s a tremendous undertaking, Jeremy’s making it happen. “It really resonated with the public,” he shares. “We raised $700,000 on Kickstarter and the idea went pretty viral. Now we have fans all over the world asking when this thing is going to come to be. I’ve been pretty amazed at how well it connected with the public.”
“It’s kind of all of the emotions,” he says of taking the steps toward the creation of the hotel. “Fun, scary, hard, terrifying, exhilarating, surprising, literally everything under the sun.”