Imagine staying at a hotel where everything in the rooms - and the nightly rate of the room itself - benefited someone in need. That's the idea that lodged in commercial and editorial photographer Jeremy Cowart's imagination, and which has since evolved into 'The Purpose Hotel'.

With a Kickstarter campaign launching this week, Cowart hopes to open the first Purpose Hotel in Nashville within three years. So why would a successful photographer switch from taking pictures of some of the world's biggest celebrities, to get into the hotel business?

We spoke to Jeremy recently about his work, and his plans for The Purpose Hotel.


What is the Purpose Hotel?

It's going to be a hotel where everything in the building is connected to a cause, or a non-profit. So everything you're interacting with is helping someone, somewhere in the world. Our tagline is 'Change the World in Your Sleep'.

The Purpose Hotel will be a for-profit hotel, so in that regard it's a normal hotel business, we just have a very serious cause at the core of our mission, and that cause is to help as many organizations as possible.

There are a million hotels out there, and obviously some are trying to think more along the lines of giving something back, but I'm not aware of any hotel that's doing it at the level that we're aiming for.

What inspired you to create the concept of the Purpose Hotel?

I was on a photo shoot four years ago, and I was staying at the Standard, a hotel in LA. And the room number was designed like a name tag - it said something like 'Hello, my name is Room 121'. And for whatever reason that inspired me, and I took it a different direction, and wondered what if that room number was a story that you felt connected to? And what if that story was a child's face, and what if by staying in that room you were sponsoring that child?

So it started with that simple idea, and then as I was looking around that hotel room I started thinking, well, I know there are non-profits that make soaps, and shampoo... what if the TV showed inspiring documentaries from filmmakers all around the world... what if the Internet fee went to fight human trafficking... what if room service was connected to Food for the Hungry?

I just had this lightbulb moment - what if everything was helping something? And it grew from there. 

Instead of going out and buying soaps and shampoo from whoever, or artwork just to fill the hotel, we're going to go and source those directly from non-profits who are making or helping individuals-in-need make those products. In other words, we want to create jobs for people in need around the world.

Is photography core to the concept of the Purpose Hotel?

In a way, yes. It'll obviously still be a hotel, but as a photographer and an artist I want there to be an amazing display of both, in the hotel. I can't wait to personally curate those galleries because I have so many friends and peers in the industry whose work I really want on the walls of the hotel.

My dream is for the whole hotel to be a living, breathing art gallery, where we sell the artists' work, and that money goes to them. I want to help artists make a living through the hotel, and I hope that we can also give a percentage of sales to organizations that do art therapy. So that kids around the world can process their past, their history, through art therapy. I got to do that in Uganda and it was amazing.

At this point, would you say you've made a transition of sorts, from making a living purely from photography, to more of a philanthropic way of life?

Sure, it could be called philanthropy, it could be called being an entrepreneur. But at the end of the day I think of myself as an idea chaser. When we have those whispers of ideas, a lot of people don't pursue them because they think they're impossible or they think they can't, but I love the challenge of chasing those ideas no matter how big they are.

I'm passionate about the intersection where creativity and helping people meet. If I can help the community and do it in a really interesting, creative way, I'm passionate about that.

Was there a single experience, or trip that lead you to be more interested in philanthropy?

It was a sort of building, escalating thing. From my first trip to Africa in 2005, followed up by many more trips, doing projects overseas. I'm the founder of Help Portrait, which is a non-profit where we have photographers all over the world giving portraits to people in need. So yeah - I've found so much fulfillment from all of those projects. 

Do you see yourself potentially making a living out of projects like this, or will you always be a commercial photographer as well?

Good question, and I'm not sure about the answer. I'll always be a visual artist first. I think that will continue to morph into different forms - I'll always have a camera in my hands, I'll always shoot, but I hope that there are humanitarian projects and personal projects in my future.

What has your photographic career taught you?

Every photographer wants to build a name for themselves, and wants to be famous and all that. But I've learned that it's a lot less fulfilling than you think it is. It's not that great, it's not going to change your life. I like to say that greatness should be used to serve a greater purpose. So how do you use greatness to do something even bigger than yourself? That's a lesson I've learned, and I'm continuing to do things that are bigger than me, and which aren't about me.