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Photo of the week: Drone portraits bring healing and awareness after wildfire


Published Aug 19, 2017
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Jeremy Cowart

On November 23, 2016, a fire started along the Chimney Tops 2 that would spread throughout Gatlinburg and become the worst fire in Tennessee of the last 100 years. It claimed 14 lives and over 2,000 homes and businesses.

As the devastation became apparent, I had an idea to use my camera to bring healing and awareness to the region’s victims in a series of photos. From December 14-20, 2016, I photographed as many individuals and families as I could. There were already lots of photographers and drone enthusiasts there but I don’t find that more cameras help in times of need. There has to be a specific idea or angle to tell the story in a different, emotionally-compelling way.

As story-tellers, we have to use the creative director parts of our minds to think differently.

So I had the idea to place a stark white mattress in the middle of these blackened, charred homes and then place the homeowners on the mattress and photograph it from a drone. I had never used drones before but I knew it was the right solution for this project. And I was hopeful that it would be a bit therapeutic for the homeowners to lay down one last time in their former home… a moment of quiet remembrance in a time of distress.

This is the very first photo I took for the project, a portrait of a new friend named Kirk Fleta. He’s a famous musician and had built his home himself, with his own hands.

We had him lay down and then started flying the drone. As soon as I took this first photo, I started crying. I’ve never cried in my entire career, upon seeing one of my images for the first time. But this one got me on every level. Not only was it a successful vision but it uniquely displayed Kirk’s loss and it seemed to represent such a vulnerable moment for him… the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.

We used a variety of different drones and DSLRs to capture the aerial shots and portraits for the project, respectively. For this shot, we were using a DJI Inspire Pro (X5). You can see the entire project here.


Jeremy Cowart is an award-winning photographer, artist, and entrepreneur whose mission in life is to “explore the intersection of creativity and empathy.” His work ranges from celebrity portraiture to deeply personal projects like the Gatlinburg portraits. To see more of his work, visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

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