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WNBA Draft Portraits Reveal ‘Bliss and Joy’ of Life-Changing Night

The frenzy of the draft created a “fun challenge” for photographer Taylor Ballantyne.
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A'ja Wilson at the '18 WNBA draft.

Photographer Taylor Ballantyne loves the creativity involved in portraiture. And on the night of the 2018 WNBA draft, she was tasked with capturing the event’s participants as they embarked on the start of their professional careers.

“We just tried to create as many dynamic portraits as we could,” Ballantyne says. “It all moves very fast. But it’s a fun challenge for me. I thrive off that environment, having to create something unique and special, with a lot of pressure and a short amount of time.”

Ballantyne knew she wanted to make that night’s pictures in black and white. “There’s something timeless about it. They feel more intimate,” she says. “And the emotion, the energy and the vibrancy still comes through.” Plus, Ballantyne says, “When [subjects] see a more creative portrait that’s being created in this type of environment and it’s in black-and-white, it definitely gives a unique feel to it. You can tell they react differently.”

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Napheesa Collier at the '19 WNBA draft.

That energetic, and collaborative, moment is a feeling she has grown used to capturing, and one she very much enjoys. In 2017 she photographed that year’s draftees in a similar portrait series, putting together a collection in which participants posed in front of a simple white backdrop. In addition to photographing the ’18 WNBA draft, she shot the ’19 draft, effectively utilizing the industrial space at Nike’s New York City headquarters to have some of her subjects lean against one of the walls in her set. For each shoot, she arrived hours in advance to start constructing different looks and to try out varying camera angles, before waiting around for the athlete car wash to begin.

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“These women are so strong and powerful,” says Ballantyne, who is part of an elite group of women to shoot a cover in the 60-plus-year history of Sports Illustrated. “There’s such beauty in that power, and it’s like what can we do to bring out their personalities.”

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Arike Ogunbowale at the '19 WNBA draft.

In the span of just a few years, a number of Ballantyne’s subjects from those draft-night shoots have turned into the WNBA’s brightest stars. Reigning MVP A’ja Wilson, 2020 scoring champion Arike Ogunbowale and ’19 Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier represent the W’s budding crop of talent, all of whom were included in the various collections. With the league’s 25th season now underway, Ballantyne finds particular joy in reflecting on her tie-in to the beginning of such professional journeys.

“With every single athlete that came on, there’s just excitement and a willingness to collaborate and create a really beautiful portrait and a piece of art they get excited about,” she says. “They’re buzzing off of the experience that has just happened for them. There’s just this feeling of bliss and joy.

“It’s just a really cool environment to be in.”

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Photo editor Abby Nicolas (back) and Ballantyne.

You can follow all of SI's WNBA coverage at si.com/wnba.

Photographer Taylor Ballantyne loves the creativity involved in portraiture. And on the night of the 2018 WNBA draft, she was tasked with capturing the event’s participants as they embarked on the start of their professional careers.

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