From Photo Student Still Lifes to The New York Times: Jessica Pettway Is Changing the Game

In just a few years, Jessica Pettway has gone from SVA photo student shooting props from Canal Plastics to being commissioned by Time, VICE, The New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek.

Her bold creativity and attention to the humorous and absurd – for example, a slice of pizza riding a roller skate shot for Topic Stories or a diamond bedazzled watermelon – entices brands and editors to hire her, and has landed her acclaimed awards including the PDN 30, Authority Collective’s Lit List, and Adobe’s 20 Creatives to Watch.

Luupe photographer Mikayla Whitmore speaks with Pettway about her favorite assignments, creative challenges, grilled cheese and how to get your work taken seriously and professionally as an emerging photographer.

Jessica Pettway on set with The Luupe! Portrait © Keren Sachs


© Jessica Pettway for VICE

Mikayla Whitmore: I know you are based in New York City and received your BFA for Photography and Video at SVA. Did you grow up in New York? What else shaped your perspective and love for the surreal with a dash of humor?

Jessia Pettway: I grew up watching a bunch of cartoons in New Jersey! I love the color and the humor in Looney Tunes, Spongebob, Tom & Jerry, Animaniacs, etc.

Whitmore: Was there a definitive moment, an assignment, or mentor along the way you remember getting and thinking “This is it! This is my moment” –  that helped catapult to where you are today?

Pettway: My first editorial assignments definitely opened the door for more work! My first ever “big girl” assignment while in school was for Sweet, Hearst’s Snapchat channel at the time. That made me feel like I could continue with photography professionally. During my first year out of school, my next few assignments were with VICE, Bloomberg Businessweek and TIME.

Those were amazing opportunities that got my work in front of a bunch of eyes and got people to start viewing my work outside of just being student work and take me and my work seriously. I’m super grateful for all the fun work I got to make in that first year!

The 2017 New York Times Magazine Health Issue © Jessica Pettway


© Jessica Pettway for The New Yorker

Whitmore: As a photographer in a predominantly male, white-dominated profession, what are some pros or cons in the industry you would like to address to hopefully change things for future generations and or yourself when in the field?

For example, often a lot of men approach me when shooting with a “savior complex.” They assume I need their help when I am clearly capable on my own or receiving help normally from another female/non-binary assistant or friend. I do not mind being asked if I need help, but I find it really frustrating when most do not listen or respect my answer of NO (thank you).

Pettway: I’ve totally had that happen multiple times and it’s so annoying!

The con of being a Black woman in this white, male-dominated profession is that I find that people ask me how I’m navigating the patriarchy and racism in the field more often than they are asking the white men and women benefiting from and perpetuating the imbalance how they are addressing and challenging these issues if at all. 

For some reason, it seems that it is more common for people to ask those affected by these issues how they are dealing with them rather than asking those that are either perpetuating the issue or silently benefiting from it how they are addressing it.

I would like to see more people ask white men and women to acknowledge inequality in their interviews and ask what they are actively doing to address it. No other woman in this interview series was asked to acknowledge white male dominance in the field of inequalities. I’d like for people to notice that more often and ask themselves why? I’m interested in seeing everyone address these issues.

© Jessica Pettway for Batiste


Sparkle Sparkle. © Jessica Pettway

Whitmore: What question have you always wanted to answer but have never been asked?

Pettway: I want someone to ask me to design and build a mini-golf course and I want someone to ask me to shoot Rihanna!!!

Whitmore: If money, time, and politics were not an issue, what would one of your “dream” shoots be?

Pettway: Robyn Rihanna Fenty. I will not rest until I take a portrait of Rihanna! She’s also my Gmail avatar because I want to constantly put that energy out there and remind editors and gatekeepers that I would like to one day take a portrait of Rihanna.

Carrot Dog photographed for By Chloe © Jessica Pettway


© Jessica Pettway

Whitmore: What do you do to creatively recharge and avoid burnout?

Pettway: I love getting sucked into reality tv to wind down and recharge! I love Real Housewives (Atlanta & Beverly Hills), Love Island UK, 90 Day Fiance, and Love and Hip Hop. Also reminding myself that it’s ok to have hobbies and interests outside of photo and keeping in mind that I can just enjoy them and I don’t need to monetize or shoot them keeps me grounded and helps to avoid burnout. 

I like to remember that I can get a manicure with amazing nail art and not necessarily have to shoot it. I can attend a really fun and random event without feeling like I absolutely have to shoot it. Or I can watch tons of reality TV without feeling like I absolutely have to make a series about that interest. Enjoying my interests and allowing myself to turn off my creative brain for a bit helps me avoid burnout.


Pizza Delivery © Jessica Pettway for Topic Stories


Grilled Cheese © Jessica Pettway

Whitmore: I believe we share an intense love and admiration for the art of grilled cheeses! Do you have any trade secrets to making a “perfect” sandwich? I enjoy dropping some cheese onto the pan and putting my bread on top of it to get a charred, crispy cheese flavor throughout…

Pettway: That’s a great technique, I’ll definitely have to give that a try! I think keeping in mind that there can never be too much butter will definitely help create a great grilled cheese.

Whitmore: Any upcoming projects or collaborations you are looking forward to for 2020?

Pettway: I’m always hoping that my camera can allow me to travel, I love an adventure!