I was sitting in an aisle seat, ready to make my escape that September day, when a man took the stage. An acquaintance had told me prior to my arrival that I should meet him, listing off a series of attributes, “Celebrity photographer, entrepreneur, and truly good human.”
He didn’t seem as confident as some of the other speakers had. His voice was a little shaky as he began and there was relief in it as the audience turned their eyes away from him and towards the screens where his presentation was beginning. His story unfolded, through mesmerizing images taken by his camera, painted by his hands, and told by his strengthening voice. It became clear; this was an ordinary man made extraordinary by his drive. His talent is once in a generation, but there was something else unique about him. He sees his abilities as a gift.
As he began to tell his story, I felt an unusual emotion rise within me. Hope. He spoke first of becoming a top celebrity photographer, then starting Help-Portrait, a non-profit which gives people who have never had the opportunity or resources to have their portraits made a chance to have their picture taken. He told the story of using his abilities to spread hope after the earthquake in Haiti, taking photographs that eventually were shared in the halls of the UN. And then an image I will never forget filled the screen, two men, one a survivor of genocide and the other a perpetrator of it.
On their arms were painted the words, “Love is the weapon that destroys all evil.” The words echoed in my heart. Truth. Good and solid words. The kind which write themselves on your soul and propel you forward into some sort of service. He had done a series of these as the two opposing sides were brought together for forgiveness.
As he came to the end of his presentation, he asked a question, “What will you gift to the world?” Tears were filling his voice and our faces as he asked it and as he left us with that question, I felt myself rising to my feet. All around me others were standing, clapping, and weeping.
What will you gift to the world?
The words ricocheted in my skull like a bullet. At that point in my life I wasn’t giving anything to the world. I was trying to survive the day to day. Surviving leaves little room for giving back. I wanted to heal enough to get to the place where I could find my gift to the world.
His words and work inspired change and insurrection in my heart, so I asked him to sit down with me for a few minutes on my trip across the country last year. He was kind enough to take time out of his crazy schedule. In the few minutes we had together, I learned his success is meaningful to him only in the context where it allows him to re-invest in the world.
His heart is for love.
His heart is for love and my recording device wasn’t having any of it. I was only able to capture a few minutes of our conversation but I can tell you it was centered on his family first and work second. He is passionate about creating work that matters, but he is just as passionate about his family. Some of that conversation from last October has faded in my mind, but I do remember him talking about having a large work opportunity and turning it down to spend time trick or treating with his children.
Because the work you create isn’t the only legacy you leave behind. The moments are too.
That’s what I want you to remember about Jeremy — he’s a human; not just a creator or someone you aspire to be.
He makes choices and has feeling and creates and destroys. Like you. He recently wrote a post on social media after speaking at Catalyst. In it he addressed people taking selfies with him but no longer speaking to him. To them he was an object to observe rather than a being to have conversation with. He challenged those who read it to engage.
I support that challenge. There are no cool kids. We’re all humans. Some of us have accomplished incredible things which deserve respect but not worship.That’s how Jeremy creates. He isn’t here to here to present you with the best picture of yourself. Sometimes it happens, but it’s only because that piece of you already exists. Whether through Help-Portrait or OKDOTHIS or See University or what he’s done as a celebrity photographer —
His work teaches us to be seen — not as a commodity or a brand — as a human.
The culmination of Jeremy’s projects and photography is a question. Will we allow ourselves to be known for the beauty of our human spirit? Will we allow ourselves to be loved? That’s his gift to the world.