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With a drone and a mattress, a photographer is helping Tennessee town rebuild after fire

Celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart admits that his latest photography project started with a rather weird idea: a drone and a mattress. But with an aerial view and a stark white contrast to the ash and rubble, the Nashville, Tennessee-based photographer is helping nearly two dozen families that lost their homes in the Gatlinburg fires to rebuild.

Widespread fires on Nov. 28 destroyed more than 2,000 homes, killing 14 and injuring 190 more in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Cowart, a celebrity photographer who has shot pics of celebrities from Taylor Swift to the Kardashians, wanted to respond in a creative way. So, with three drones and a mattress, Cowart photographed 22 Gatlinburg families in the rubble of their former homes Dec. 14-17, sharing each family’s story on Facebook and Instagram, along with a Go Fund Me link to help with rebuilding.

While Cowart has been shooting full time for more than a decade, the project was his first with a drone — several drones, actually. Cowart and four crew members used a DJI Mavic Pro with a Canon T2i, a DJI Inspire 1 Pro with the Zenmuse X5R camera, and the DJI Phantom 3.  The photographer used a Canon 5Ds for the ground-level portraits, as well as for some of the drone shots.

“Many times, drones don’t show emotion. I wanted to figure out how to show emotion and tell a story with a drone,” he said.

“As an artist, if I do something weird, creative and helpful — then I’m doing my job.”

Emotion is what brought the mattress into the project. Cowart said he thought the mattress would be symbolic and therapeutic for the families, and give them a chance to rest in their former homes one last time.

He also knew the white would offer contrast, as well as create a sense of scale.

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Cowart rented a nearby cabin, then started publicizing the project through word of mouth. At first, many people were skeptical, he said, but more and more families asked to be part of the project as he shot.

The first time he saw that weird idea come to life on the screen, Cowart was moved to tears. “It’s just crazy to have a weird idea like that — a drone and a mattress — and to see it on the screen for the first time — it just got me at that moment to see how powerful it was.”

Weather proved to be the toughest part of the project, Cowart said, with the cold shortening camera and drone battery life and the wind making drone flight difficult.

Over four days, Cowart shot 22 families and shared their stories, from a photographer who lost all his gear to a firefighter that lost his home in the blaze. The project also included the entire staff of the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in the ruins of the school.Along with the aerial mattress shots, Cowart shot portraits of the families in the rubble, including Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner. When Cowart saw the long shadows created from the evening sun, he shot an aerial portrait of the shadows of the mayor’s family holding hands in the ashes of their home.

“If I can use my talents to help people in need, then I enjoy [photography] a whole lot more.”

All the stories and photographs were published Dec. 22 at voicesofgburg.com, along with links to donate to each family.

“As an artist, if I do something weird, creative and helpful — then I’m doing my job,” Cowart said.

The Voices of Gaitlinburg project was not Cowart’s first time using photography for a cause — Cowart has shot humanitarian projects related to the genocide in Rawanda and the earthquake in Haiti. He also founded the nonprofit group Help Portrait, and is now building a humanitarian hotel after a successful Kickstarter project, called the Purpose Hotel.

“I have all the gear and the experience, why use it just for myself?” he says. “I’d rather point to things bigger than myself. If I can use my talents to help people in need, then I enjoy [photography] a whole lot more.”

Jeremy Cowart, left, used drones and a mattress to create portraits of families that lost their homes in the Gatlinburg fires.

Cowart says with some creativity, photographers can use their images to raise awareness of issues and tragedies. “In times of tragedy,” he advises other photographers, “think as creative as you do for your real work, your assignments and commercial work. If we can bring unique ideas in times of need, then we can expand the number of eyeballs on the project.”

The images and interviews from the Voices of Gatlinburg project are now available online, as well as on Corwart’s Facebook and Instagram pages.