Mighty Youth

©Jermaine Horton

The image portrays two boys, both wearing black T-shirts and khaki shorts, both with right fists raised. The smaller boy, Tink, had been told he could enroll in a Head Start program only if he got a haircut … or wore a dress. The taller boy, DeAndre, wasn’t allowed to participate in his high school graduation unless he lost the dreadlocks. They stand in the middle of a fountain plaza with a background of waterfall columns shimmering under a halo of sunlight. The scene recalls Martin Luther King Jr.’s scripture citation—“Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”—in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

©Jermaine Horton

The image is evocative for the viewer. But its primary purpose is to encourage the subjects’ confidence. These two boys suffered injustices, and Jermaine Horton’s portraits are intended to help them regain their self-esteem.

The mission of Horton’s nonprofit organization, The Art of Confidence Project, is “to help build confidence, self-esteem and empowerment through the art of imagery.” He provides portrait sessions to victimized youths that showcase their individuality and aspirations. DeAndre, for example, wants to be a veterinarian and wears a doctor’s jacket in some of his portraits. The photo sessions have therapeutic value as well. Horton will share his passion for The Art of Confidence during his 2022 Imaging USA session, “Personal Projects That Impact.”

©Derrel Hoshing
Photographer Jermaine Horton
©Jermaine Horton

“A personal project is something near and dear to my heart, or your heart, or whoever’s heart. It’s whatever is personal to you,” says Horton, who’s based in the Chicago suburb of Naperville. That passion could be anything from gardening to addressing breast cancer, he says. “My passion was helping children who couldn’t help themselves. I wanted a project for children who have lost their confidence and how they gain it back, whether it was from discrimination or a medical condition.”

Horton’s photography portfolio spans the life of his 9-year-old daughter. Living off earnings from successful business deals, Horton was devoted to being a full-time dad. When his daughter was a few months old, he asked a photographer to make portraits of her, but the session was never scheduled.

“I got tired of waiting,” Horton says, “so I went into Best Buy and bought a camera and fell in love with taking images of my daughter.” He developed his photography skills as a hobby, but, using his daughter as his subject, he began scoring a few commercial sales and developing a presence on social media. “I didn’t consider myself a professional,” he says. “It wasn’t until a few years ago that I made it a full-time profession.”

When he did launch a full-time career, Horton specialized in weddings, a choice inspired by his childhood in southside Chicago. “I never had a two-parent household, never had consistent love growing up. I ended up finding the very exact thing I was looking for through my photography. You look at certain love and how couples look at and embrace each other, you want to tell that story. And when you grow up not having that or seeing that, you know when it’s genuine.” Horton’s moving images of family love combined with his fun-loving personality made for a successful wedding business. As business grew, so did the scope of his photography: Clients returned for maternity photos, family portraits, and branding images. He’s been named a Sony Artisan of Imagery and Westcott Top Pro, and he’s an SLR Lounge tutor.


In the fall of 2019, Paragon Charter Academy in Jackson, Michigan, forbade third grader Marian from having her school photo taken because her bright red hair extensions violated its dress code. Horton, who was at a conference when he heard about it, contacted the reporter who covered the story, called Marian’s father, and offered to drive from Naperville to Jackson to make the girl’s portrait. Horton gave Marian the full glamour session treatment, highlighting her red extensions. He also asked Marian to think back to how she felt when the school stopped her from having her picture made.

©Jermaine Horton

Marian let out a “warrior scream.” That image, among those he posted from the session on Instagram, went viral. “That’s what put my business on the map,” Horton says. Because of the resulting coverage, Horton’s website media page lists CNN, BET, CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, People, and the Chicago Tribune. “Then people found out I was a wedding photographer,” he says, “and I had attorneys and teachers and celebrities wanting me to do their weddings.”

Horton next heard about 4-year-old Tink in Texas, whose hair was too long for the school district’s tastes. He learned of Brook and April, two sisters at a New York City ballet program who were dropped from an annual production of “Black Nutcracker” because of their braids. These incidents and Horton’s response to them prompted him to launch The Art of Confidence Project, for which he leverages his photography skills to serve youths whose confidence has taken a wallop from society or disease—or both, in the case of A’Myah, a sixth grader in Plano, Texas. Chemo treatment for a rare form of cancer caused her hair to fall out, and a bully snatched her wig and teased her. Horton’s images of A’Myah portray her defiantly holding her wig aloft and showing off her beautiful bald head.

©Jermaine Horton

“We help them get their confidence back through their imagery and artistry, showing that they are just as amazing as anyone else, or better,” Horton says. He focuses on kids 19 and under because “everything starts from our youth,” and children and teenagers too often lack the voice to respond and recover. Though he originally intended to include children of all races, the most egregious incidents he has encountered have all involved children of color. He also insists he’s not making a political statement: “My side is the children’s.”


Hair seems a running theme in the project—in addition to Marian, Tink, DeAndre, Brook, April, and A’Myah, Horton also photographed Asia, of Shreveport, Louisiana, who was kicked off the cheerleading team because of her hairstyle. However, Horton responds to victims of other forms of discrimination or embarrassment, too. Latrell of Edmond, Oklahoma, wore a “Black King” T-shirt to school; his teacher said it was racist. Macie, a biracial Kentucky high school sophomore, joined a social media platform when her school went to virtual learning; classmates subjected her to hundreds of racial insults in a matter of minutes. Christin, a Stephen F. Austin State University freshman, was asleep in her dorm room in the middle of the night when a police SWAT team stormed in with firearms and tasers drawn; fellow students had called the police as a prank. Grade school students Raleigh, with Type 1 diabetes, and Kennidi, with congenital heart disease, struggled with the consequences of their medical conditions; in Horton’s portraits they show off their insulin equipment and scars, respectively.

©Jermaine Horton

Horton learns of these stories through social media and vets them before contacting the families. Each session starts with “a release”—not a form to sign but a signature portrait in the tradition established by Marian’s warrior scream. “When they release what’s held against them, they release any anger or any power that people held over them, and they let it go,” he explains. Chyna, a girl with a learning disability, is clutching college acceptance letters as she screams, unleashing her frustration at the teachers who told her she wouldn’t make it.

In a newscast video of Latrell, whom Horton posed as a king wearing his “Black King” t-shirt and sitting on a throne, the first attempt at “the release” had the obviously shy Latrell breaking into laughter instead. Horton laughs along but then coaxes Latrell into trying again. On the count of three, the boy yells with all his might, his eyes clinched in pain, his hands clutching the arms of the throne.

Horton had been covering the The Art of Confidence Project expenses, but the 501(c)(3) nonprofit is now receiving donations and grants. The project has given his wedding and portrait business exposure, and his Instagram posts include technical information on the portraits, which is in keeping with the project’s emphasis on the art of imagery.

Nevertheless, the most profound synergy between Horton’s personal passion project and his business is the theme of empowerment that runs through both portfolios. Empowered brides in wedding photos: “You can be beautiful, but you can also be strong.” Empowered children, fathers, and mothers in family portraits: “I like to capture people in the genuine essence of who they are when we do family portraits.” Empowered youths who have experienced The Art of Confidence.

Eric Minton is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.