The 18-year-old, who will graduate May 17, has already become a social media star, drawing 23,000 followers to his photo-sharing Instagram account and attracting major companies, such as Levi’s and Harry’s, a high-end men’s retailer.
Cowan started his Instagram site a year and a half ago. In August, the social media program elevated him to its “suggested users” list and within two weeks he rocketed from 1,000 followers to more than 20,000.
Cowan said it was more than photography that landed him partnerships with companies such as Levi’s.
Companies are infiltrating social media as traditional advertising forms weaken, he said, and he saw an opportunity with Instagram.
“TV commercials are starting to become outdated. You can watch shows online or record them and skip the commercials,” he said. “Levi’s was introducing a new product called Commuter Jeans and wanted to market them through Instagram.”
His mother, Nerissa Cowan, of Mableton, described how her son photographed a friend wearing the jeans while traveling through different spots in Atlanta. The company liked what it saw and used the photos in its marketing.
Compensation came in the form of gift certificates and Levi’s products, his mother said.
Today, Cowan is bound for Georgia State University and plans to double major in business and photography.
He wants to transfer after two years to a nationally-known photography program, such as UCLA or NYU. From there, his ambitions are high.
“I want to leave a legacy with my photography,” he said.
Cowan already has his work displayed at Whitefield Academy and on the cellphones of about 23,000 people. Not bad for an 18-year-old with just over a year of photography experience.
Cowan grew up in Mableton, attending Eastside Christian in Marietta before enrolling at Whitefield Academy for high school. Whitefield is a prekindergarten to 12th grade Christ-centered preparatory school with an enrollment of 650 students.
Nerissa Cowan explained why she took the private school route with her children.
“I wanted him to have a faith-based education because faith is very important to our family, but I wanted him to have a well-rounded experience where he’d have lots of opportunity to do the things that he wanted to do,” she said. “I just wanted him to have the opportunity to be everything he could think of and just to be able to nurture that.”
She also cited a small teacher-to-student ratio.
“The small classroom environment was another important thing to be where the teachers are able to know my child and be able to respond to his needs,” Nerissa Cowan said.
Steve Hellier has known Cowan for four years. Hellier is in his 15th year as a math teacher at Whitefield, but knows Cowan mostly through his role as a Boy Scout troop leader.
Cowan only started in the Scouts in the ninth grade, much later than most of his peers. He became an Eagle Scout in 2013, but what impressed Hellier more is that Cowan took on a leadership role in his second year.
“You can’t overstate that,” he said. “His peers recognized him as a leader.”
As a sophomore, Cowan approached Hellier about an overnight bike trip he wanted to plan on the Silver Comet Trail. Hellier was impressed, but had seen cases in the past where a student comes up with the idea and then expects the adults to do all the planning.
Not Cowan. He organized the trip, planned meals and breaks, a place to stay and emailed the rest of the troop with practice times. When trip time came, Cowan led it.
“That’s when I said, ‘Wow, this isn’t a normal teenager,’” Hellier said. “He’s a natural-born leader.”
Cowan later planned a second trip on a campsite near the Canadian border, again organizing many of the details on his own.
Another example cited by Hellier is Cowan’s time as a student in his algebra class. Cowan wasn’t a natural when it came to math, but put his mind to it and worked hard to get a top grade.
His leadership shows in many other ways. He played percussion in the marching band, was Junior Class president, wrestled, ran cross country, was in the National Honor Society and worked at the Smyrna Chick-fil-A, all during his time at Whitefield. But Hellier said Cowan also doesn’t seek the spotlight or draw attention to himself. Despite all the time they spent together, he didn’t even know about Cowan’s Instagram success until recently.
Cowan made sure to give credit to his mom and family for the success he’s had so far in life. She’s supported his ideas and trusted him enough to allow photo shoots in far-off locations, he said.
Hellier sees Cowan as being open to new things, whether it be photography or something else.
He sees him as a future entrepreneur, perhaps someone who leads outdoors trips but also designs and runs the courses himself. Hellier envisions Cowan doing something new and different, not following the lead of what everyone else is doing. He sees Cowan as an innovator.
“He is a young man of character,” Hellier said.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series spotlighting some of Cobb County’s outstanding members of the class of 2014.