The Beautiful Project

Jamaica Gilmer

Jamaica Gilmer, Founder and Director

ENC: Please share with our readers your inspiration for The Beautiful Project.

Jamaica Gilmer: “In 2004, I graduated from college, got married, relocated to North Carolina and decided to change my career path. One year earlier, my mother, who was my heart, passed away.  Life transitions often demand…creativity.”

“A friend asked me what I wanted to do with my life and my answer was surprisingly simple: “I want to impact black girls through photography.” Her response was even simpler: “Ok, go do it.” I took the weekend to think and pray, think, and pray some more. I spoke with remarkable women in my life that told me about their journey as black women, and what confidence and insecurity looked like in the children around them. I thought about how my mother had marked me forever with her diligence to support my needs and dreams. The experiences of all of these women provoked the concept of The Beautiful Project; a program that uses photography and creative workshops that help black girls and young women investigate and celebrate how they define beauty and how beauty is defined for them. From 2004 until 2007, I developed the photography portion of The Beautiful Project, all the while knowing there was something missing. In 2007, Pamela Thompson, a dear friend and gifted teacher, created the curriculum for Saturday Studios; bi-weekly workshops that help girls dissect representations of black women and girls in the media and their every day lives.” In 2010, we found the missing piece to our puzzle Erin Stephens. Erin created a curriculum to help our undergraduate women investigate and define for themselves what personal values fuel their direct service work, relationships, personal, and professional lives.

We train undergraduate black women photographers to interview our little girl participants and photograph them and their families based on the reflections discovered in the interviews. We invite undergraduate black women researches, teachers, youth workers, and social workers to serve as Program Assistants for Saturday Studios.

ENC: What are the components of the Beautiful Project?

Jamaica Gilmer: The Beautiful. Project includes photo process (interviews, photo shoots focused on the little girls and their families, conducted by the undergraduate women), Saturday Studios (bi-weekly fun creative workshops for 9-12 year old girls to further investigate their definition of beauty), and the Health & Wellness track (professional and personal development workshops for undergraduate black women participants).

ENC: Is there currently a support staff for The Beautiful Project?

Jamaica Gilmer: Our team is remarkably talented and yet still growing. Pamela Thompson serves as the TBP Associate Director. Pamela received her Masters of Education at Loyola College and is a teacher at the Montessori School of Raleigh. She is the kind of teacher that is so passionate and skillful about teach anyone listening would wonder if maybe they should become a teacher too. Erin Stephens serves as TBP’s Health & Wellness Coordinator. Erin received her Master’s degree in Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and works as the program coordinator of the Women’s Center at Duke University. Her commitment and passion around authentic, thoughtful interaction and service bolsters our entire team.

This year we have six undergraduate women partnering with us to do this work as photographers and program assistants. They are a layered, committed, remarkable group from both UNC and Duke.

ENC: How many young girls have you fostered thus far with The Beautiful Project? (Is there a success/feel good story you would like to share?).

Jamaica Gilmer: “Over 25 participants have been impacted through the pilot programming of TBP. We are excited about accepting another class of girls and undergraduate women for the fall. Applications will be available at our closing exhibit, April 16 and on our website this summer.”

ENC: Is there currently in place a means of tracking progress of past participants?

Jamaica Gilmer: “We will track the girls, families, and undergraduate women through summer reunions.”

ENC: How has the image and esteem problem facing young black girls changed since you were a little girl, if at all?

Jamaica Gilmer: “The image and esteem problem facing young black girls is surprisingly very similar to my experiences as a child. There are still difficult struggles surrounding positive and negative representations of black girls and women in the media, the subtle and not so subtle issues around complexion, hair texture, and background.”

The Beautiful Project

Photo courtesy of "The Beautiful Project"

ENC: Please explain the use of cameras and how they can positively affect image and esteem issues.

Jamaica Gilmer: “Images have tremendous influence. We use cameras to capture what our eyes see everyday: remarkably layered young black girls. People are startled and moved by these photographs and quotes because true representations of black girls and young women are few and far between in the media, and in our communities. After discovering first hand the affirming and challenging process of interviewing and photographing girls and their families, I became set on making sure my experience was not unique. As a program, we put cameras in the hands of undergraduate women and train them to follow their gut feelings in the process. In the future, we will put cameras in the hands of our younger girls as well.”

ENC: With the first African American President and his family, can you explain how this is a significant time historically, and the impact this might have on little black girls in particular?

Jamaica Gilmer: “For the first time in history, there are two little black girls in the white house. The daughters of a man and a woman many of us can somehow relate to. It is a stunning experience to see little girls moved and humbled by a room filled with people who want to celebrate and consider the layered beauty (strength, intellect, triumph, and struggle.) of black girls. There reaction is quiet, like they are taking in something special but can’t put their finger on how to describe it with words. I have watched little girls react to the President, the first lady, and their children in a similar way. They are inspired by the striking image of people who look like them holding positions no one who looks like them ever have before. Girls are now adding Malia, Sasha, and Michelle Obama to the list of those who inspire them. Why?”

One of our girls said, “Malia and Sasha are courageous. They know some people just don’t like their dad, and still they hug on him and stay around him all the time, even though it’s dangerous.” Black girls are taking note that there is something deafening about the opportunity to consider the inner and outer beauty of black girls on a national stage.

ENC: How is The Beautiful Project currently funded?

Jamaica Gilmer: The Southern Documentary Fund serves as the fiscal sponsor for TBP, allowing us to receive tax-deductible donations. As of now, TBP is funded through in-kind donations and amazing individual donors. We are grateful to have received a grant from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation! We are hopeful to receive grant support and continued individual support in the upcoming years.

ENC: Are there partnerships with other organizations similar to yours?

Jamaica Gilmer: We are in the midst of reaching out to other organizations that somehow service black girls and young women. The People’s Channel, Calvary Ministries of the Westend, Inc., Frontline Solutions, and Leia Adelle Photography are among our most recent partners.

ENC: How can others learn more about The Beautiful Project?

Jamaica Gilmer:

“Feel free to visit our website:! If you would like to receive our e-newsletter send us your e-mail address:

& You can always give us a ring!


March 4, 2011-March 30, 2011: Preview exhibit of The Beautiful Project @ Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University

April 16, 2011: A Beautiful Night… An Exhibit & Celebration of the Dynamic Beauty of Black girls!  *More details are to come*

ENC: We thank you for your time, and look forward to checking in with The Beautiful Project. Best of luck with this and all of your future endeavors.

Jamaica Gilmer: Many thanks for this invitation!

For more information:

Jamaica Gilmer, Founder/Director

The Beautiful Project