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, basketb