Interview: Powerful Portraits of Wildfire Victims Lying Amongst Their Burned Belongings

Known as a gateway to the Smoky Mountains, the Tennessee town of Gatlinburg was tragically affected by a raging fire on November 28, 2016. With 17,140 acres burned and over 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed, it is one of the worst fires to rip through the region. It was at this moment that photographer Jeremy Cowart sprang into action by creating Voices of Gatlinburg.

As a celebrity photographer, Cowart has photographed the likes of Taylor Swift, Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Stone, and the Kardashians, but it's his personal and humanitarian work that he finds most fulfilling. Working as a photographer for over 11 years, some of those projects include the non-profit Help-Portrait, which provides free portraits for people in need. Applying his artistic creativity to his humanitarian work, Cowart spent a week in Gatlinburg. There, he and his crew gathered stories and shot moving aerial drone images of victims lying on white mattresses in the rubble of their homes.

By taking the time to photograph and talk to locals, Cowart has given a face to those affected by this natural disaster. For those looking to help, it's possible to read all the stories and to donate to each participant in order to help them rebuild. We chatted with Cowart about his time in Gatlinburg. Read on below for the full interview.

How did you get the idea for the Voices of Gatlinburg?

Gatlinburg is close to my home and I have a lifetime of memories there. So I was trying to come up with a creative way of helping and that’s when I typed on my phone “drone and a mattress.” I could just see the whole thing instantly. I thought the visual contrast would be striking and sure enough, it was.

Why the choice of white mattresses? 

I loved it because it was both visually striking (white mattress in a burned, black, destroyed home) but also because it was a bit emotional and hopefully therapeutic for the participants… to lay in their former homes one last time. It was also easy for them. All I needed for them to do was to lie down and get comfortable.

How did you go about selecting participants for the photographs?

We had to select whoever was willing. It was hard at first because it’s such an odd idea during a time of distress for so many. So I had to gain the trust of strangers. I kept telling them that “I’m just here to be your microphone. It’s your time to say whatever you need to say.” Thankfully, people warmed up to the idea.

gatlinburg fire jeremy cowart

Christen Salter and family.

gatlinburg fire jeremy cowart

Chuck Reagan.

What has the community reaction been to the images?

Thankfully it’s been amazing. The community has been sharing the images and posts like crazy. That’s the best part. The last thing I want to do is take advantage of anyone so it was really heart-warming to see that they loved the project and continue to share it.

gatlinburg fire jeremy cowart

Mike Werner, Gatlinburg mayor.

gatlinburg fire jeremy cowart

Mike Werner, Gatlinburg mayor.

You collected stories of the participants. Anything especially meaningful or something that stood out to you that you'd like to share?

It was especially meaningful and hard to photograph the firefighter. He and his wife were both working hard that night to save the lives of others but lost their own home in the process. That’s the very definition of sacrifice.

It was also touching to photograph the Mayor of Gatlinburg, Mike Werner. He also lost his own home in the fires. I visited his home with he, his wife and three of their daughters. Everyone was crying because the daughters hadn’t seen the home yet. So it was a very emotional day for them and for me as well.

You do a lot of work photographing celebrities, balancing that with the social projects you shoot. How do these types of photography differ?

They’re night and day different, yet I love both. Shooting celebrities gives me the platform to point to the type of work that I think is truly important. As a photographer, they both present their own challenges and problem-solving but I thrive on that. At the end of the day, I’m most interested in finding the intersection of where creativity and helping others meet. That’s my goal as an artist.

Any future projects you'd like to share?

Yes, my next project is a massive one and a lifelong project. I am aiming to build a global hotel chain called The Purpose Hotel, where everything in the building is connected to a greater cause or non-profit. By staying in this hotel, visitors will be “changing the world in their sleep.” You can find out more at

gatlinburg fire jeremy cowart

Photographer Jeremy Cowart.

Jeremy Cowart: Website | Facebook | Instagram
The Voices of Gatlinburg: Website 

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Jeremy Cowart.

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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