By Emma Sarran Webster
When 17-year-old Denise Hewitt set out on a walking field trip to explore her neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, with her high school classmates, she had no idea she’d stumble upon a program that would set her career in motion.
The class visited Red Hook Labs, a photography studio, gallery, production company, and school — all dedicated to fostering creative talent and businesses in underrepresented communities. Denise was excited to find somewhere to explore her growing photography interest, and she soon became a student with the Red Hook Labs Education and Jobs Initiative. Then, in 2018, she was selected to shoot a lookbook for the iconic department store, Barneys New York. She followed up that gig by turning her lens on three WNBA players — New York Liberty’s Kia Nurse, and Connecticut Sun’s Courtney Williams and Jonquel Jones.
Denise was one of five teenage Red Hook Labs students who photographed 10 WNBA athletes for a new series debuting September 30. The photographers came up with the specific visions for their shoots and brought them to life with support from other photographers, professional stylists, and a production crew. It was a big undertaking, but as far as the athletes are concerned, the students brought their A-games.
“When the photographer who shot me explained later what she was thinking of as a concept and why her set looked the way it did, I loved it,” Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale — who was photographed by 19-year-old Kaylee Ramirez — tells MTV News. “She was taking classical paintings that usually have white subjects and putting black women in that setting, which I thought was a very sophisticated idea... and very impressive.”
Jones was similarly impressed by Denise’s vision and prowess on set — enough to sell her on being a repeat customer, if ever given the opportunity. Projects like this, she tells MTV News, also “help to get the younger generation coming up into the WNBA. It gives them the chance to be creative and just kind of show their talents as well.”
But the photo subjects aren’t the only ones feeling good after the shoots. In phone interviews with MTV News, Denise, Ramirez, and 21-year-old Genesis Gil (who photographed Chicago Sky’s Cheyenne Parker and Kahleah Copper), shared what this program and project means to them, what it was like on set, and their advice for fellow young artists.
MTV News: Why are education programs important for young artists like yourself?
Denise Hewitt: I think it’s important, especially in Red Hook because there’s a lack of opportunities and expertise when it comes to getting into the industry at all. And I think what turns people off to becoming fine arts students or exploring their craft is they know that [they’re] not guaranteed to really make it in that industry. And especially for kids in low-income areas and spaces that New York State just kind of glosses over or doesn’t really focus on or give as much attention to, it’s really important for those kids to know that you do have those outlets and [you can do] what you want to do in the fine arts realm — whether you want to pursue music, you want to pursue fashion, [or] you want to start your own business. I think they need those examples and they need those people.
Kaylee Ramirez: A lot of people — especially young kids of color — don’t really see creative fields as an option. Most of the time, we are [told] that those aren’t good careers to go into and that we should focus on becoming a doctor or a lawyer. So when we’re exposed to a lot of opportunities to indulge our creativity, to pursue new interests in life, it goes to show that it’s a good way to start off. And they’re paving the way for new generations, especially for kids of color.
MTV News: What does it mean to you to be involved in this project and shooting female athletes at the top of their game?
Ramirez: As a woman and a woman of color, to be a part of something so huge for the WNBA athletes is such a great honor. And I feel that it’s something that you rarely see. A lot of times WNBA athletes are photographed in a way that’s just basketball, basketball, basketball. And they don’t get the same opportunities or the same popularity as NBA players, so for me to be able to create an idea, to shine a light [and] show them as more feminine figures — however strong at the same time — it’s a wonderful feeling. And it’s just an honor that I got to do that for myself at 19 years old.
MTV News: What was your inspiration for the shoot?
Genesis Gil: The thing with athleticism and women is that from the get-go, as a woman, you’re not necessarily pushed toward that direction. You’re more pushed toward something soft — like wearing dresses — but when you see women who are not that, that shows that maybe you can be both.
MTV News: What was it like being on set and actually shooting these photos?
Ramirez: It was incredible. It was honestly a great adrenaline [rush]. I never really thought I would be part of the set; I was always behind the scenes. To choose my own lighting, to choose my own props, it was just incredible. I wasn’t stressed — I liked the adrenaline. I felt motivated, I wanted to do better, and make Arike look incredible. She already does, but I wanted to make her look beautiful and strong, and I worked really hard for it. I shot for three to four hours, but it didn’t even bother me.
Gil: On set, taking photos of these women, it was kind of like when you’re walking down a street and you see a person coming the opposite direction and you kind of pause and stare at them because something about them just exudes power; it’s so radiant that you have to watch it and take it in. …[The athletes] were so powerful.
MTV News: What inspires you as a photographer and artist?
Gil: Photography allows me to express something that I can’t really express in words — feelings and ideas, and what it means to be myself. And I think photography is also really important because it’s like a timestamp, and it’s good to remember the time. I think without art, places and people and ideas would just be forgotten.
Hewitt: Heritage and my background. My family is from the Grenadines— and I would not be who I am or have the mannerisms that I do without that, and I’m so proud. So a lot of it is inspiration from my family and my grandmother, [who was] an immigrant coming to Brooklyn, New York, and buying her own brownstone while working four other jobs, and living during the civil rights era. Knowing that story and every trial and tribulation that she had to go through, that’s what pushes me.
My whole thing is to create images of my people that are positive. [I want to] talk about families, talk about sisterhood and brotherhood, and about the different things that are important to each individual.
MTV News: What is the biggest challenge you face as a young artist?
Hewitt: A mix of insecurity and not being social enough. Especially in this industry, it’s about...going out there and talking to people. I’ve done the work by getting to these openings and getting to these events, but the other half is opening my mouth. I was always that kid at the party that was just sitting down and reading a book. That was my biggest struggle in the same way during the shoot: I would try to think of, “Okay, how do I start up a conversation? What would [the basketball players] want to talk about? Maybe I can talk about music; maybe I can talk about these different things.” But it’s been a constant struggle for me that I have to work on.
Ramirez: It took me a while to figure out that it has to take organization, it has to take commitment, and it has to take character to show that your ideas are worth it and for you to be confident in your ideas. In the past, I would go with the norm. I was looking at others and saying, “Okay, let me do it like that, and maybe I’ll get some publicity and maybe I’ll get this thing that I wanted.” But that wasn’t me. So, I just began to create as many ideas as possible, from my mind and my heart; and I just pulled them out...but I kept them organized and I kept them realistic.
Gil: Self-doubt is the most cruel thing that I can do to myself; but I talk to people [about it] and process whatever I think I’m feeling. Doubt is just another way to feel that you want to make yourself better, you want to be better. So if you’re doubting yourself, it’s...kind of like a fuel for improvement. The doubt can be turned around into something good.
MTV News: If you could give other aspiring young artists one piece of advice, what would it be?
Hewitt: Just get to work. Anyone can dress the part, but probably 95 percent of it is doing the work. I think that focusing on your craft and taking advantage of what is in front of you is the biggest thing. You can only get those glasses and those expensive shoes and that Gucci belt by showing up, doing the work, being respectful, knowing your audience, and putting in the time to do your craft. Do the work.
Ramirez: Never think lightly about your ideas. Even if you think your idea is too big or dumb, it’s not dumb. ...You have to be confident in your own self.
MTV News: What do you hope people take away from viewing this project?
Hewitt: These are women that are strong, that are powerful, that are confident in themselves; and I want [people] to see them and respect them as women. I just wanted to make sure the pictures encompassed who and what they are; and I wanted the players themselves to feel that these pictures expressed them, that they felt comfortable and confident in those pictures. These are powerful women, they’re strong women, and I respect these women. I’m proud that they’re here, they’re alive, they’re working, and they’re doing great things.
Gil: I hope that little boys and girls see that women can be athletic; women can be feminine; they can be a “tomboy” and an athlete, and this doesn’t mean that they’re any less woman. To see that women doing whatever they want, it normalizes this idea that women aren’t just fragile girls in dresses.
MTV News: Who is your dream photo subject?
Ramirez: The main character in The Shining — Jack Nicholson.
Gil: At the moment, who I really, really want to photograph is my grandma because she’s the only living grandparent left that I have. I just haven’t done it because she’s so far away from me. I love to look at old family photos...it’s a reminder that there was a time before me and there will be a time after me.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.