Photographer Gesi Schilling had been planning on self-imposed isolation this summer before the COVID-19 pandemic hit: She was pregnant with her second child and due to give birth in April. Then 'rona showed up and added her husband and toddler to the stay-at-home mix.
Adjusted to her new life at home, Schilling put her photography business on pause for a bit. Still, between diaper changes and sleepless nights, she was drawn to the efforts by photographers across the country, like the group behind Pictures for Elmhurst, that were coming together to raise reliefs for the pandemic. Pictures for Elmhurst's efforts alone raised $1.38 million for Elmhurst Hospital in New York City.
"I immediately thought: I would love to somehow make this happen in Miami for a local cause," Schilling says.
In the middle of the night, while typing out emails, the artist was hit with a burst of inspiration and decided to name the project after her newborn daughter, Sunny. Thus, the Sunny Project was born a mere two weeks after its namesake. It launched May 13 and has since raised more than $9,000 for three local charities.
When it came to selecting which charities to work with, the decision was simple. The new mother settled on Lotus House, Miami Diaper Bank, and Magnolia Birth House. Having recently given birth herself, she began to think about all the mothers out there who were also pregnant or with young children who may not be adjusting to quarantine life as quickly as she had.
"After I gave birth, I just started thinking about women and single mothers and women giving birth who have no work and no income and have to feed her children. I couldn't stop thinking about them," Schilling admits.
The photographer had volunteered with Lotus House in the past, so she knew its mission of sheltering women and children was a noble cause. She heard a radio spot for the Miami Diaper Bank and its efforts to provide new moms with diapers. And before opting to give birth to Sunny at a hospital, Schilling had considered the alternative methods offered by the Magnolia Birthing House and its professionally trained doulas.
With the charities front of mind, she set out to get some photographers on board.
"I reached out to all the photographers I could think of, and I sent them an email pointing to the Picture for Elmhurst project, as well as a bunch of others, and how I'd like to build a project like that here," she recounts. "The response has been way beyond anything I could have dreamed of. They were just really grateful to have something to do and have a way to contribute to society" during this time.
To date, the project offers 96 different eight-by-ten-inch images from 48 different Florida-based or Florida-born photographers, available for purchase at $100 apiece. Contributors include Maggie Steber, Josh Aronson, and Anastasia Samoylova.
The images are available for viewing online at thesunnyproject.org through June 20. Each purchase will be inkjet-printed on museum-quality paper and mailed to the buyer. The prints will be unsigned and the edition will be limited to the duration of the fundraiser.
"The Sunny Project is now a place where photographers can connect and discover other photographers," Schilling says, adding how an unexpected outcome has been building a sort of collective of Florida photographers.
"I'm unsure how this will evolve, but I hope it can become a place for Florida-based photographers to sort of communicate with one another and potentially collaborate. Building a community of local photographers was not the intent, but it's been a nice consequence."
Schilling hopes to continue the Sunny Project and add a new set of charities as she brings in additional photographers for a later round of print sales.
As the project grows, she's also seeking volunteers to help her build out the network of Florida photographers. If you're interested in volunteering your time or submitting your work to be featured, email [email protected].
To purchase prints or for more information, visit thesunnyproject.org.