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How women sports photographers are breaking the industry's barriers to entry

Chris Cwik
·7-min read

Cassy Athena was set up for success. She had her credentials from the NBA and backing from Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry that gave Athena access to personally photograph him at one of the league’s biggest events: 2018 All-Star week.

Despite all that, it still happened. As Athena was following Curry and another player back into the locker room, a security guard stopped her.

“I got stopped, and he’s like, ‘No women allowed in here,’ ” Athena told Yahoo Sports. “That’s not a thing. Women are allowed to go in NBA locker rooms.”

This wasn’t an instance of no media being allowed in. Just before she was stopped, she says a male photographer with the same credentials as Athena walked into the locker room with ease.

The security guard wouldn’t budge, and it reached a point where Athena believed they were going to kick her out of the stadium. That’s when Damian Lillard’s bodyguard stepped in. He confronted the security guard, and told Athena to come into the locker room. Athena was allowed in, but the situation still sticks with her today.

“It was just so strange to me because I was allowed to be in there,” Athena said. “I had the same credentials, I was with this player. Even when I do all the things right, people just assume no women allowed.”

This is just one of the challenges women sports photographers face in an industry dominated by men. It doesn’t matter if you’re new on the job, an 11-year veteran like Athena or someone like Elsa Garrison, who's been photographing sports for Getty Images since the '90s. You are going to experience microaggressions, and sometimes worse.

Athena and Garrison — along with Bri Lewerke and Getty photographer Maddie Meyer — are among the current group of women sports photographers trying to change that. They are fighting to combat the barriers to entry women face in the industry, and create an environment where women aren’t singled out due to their gender.

Bri Lewerke started taking photos during the Nike EYBL in 2016. (Photo taken by Kendal Shell)
Bri Lewerke started taking photos during the Nike EYBL in 2016. (Photo taken by Kendal Shell)

Sports photography isn't welcoming

The barriers to entry are many. Sexism — whether overt or subconscious — can push women away from the industry. Garrison ran into one of those situations while in college, when Garrison says a male graduate student told her “Chicks can’t shoot sports.”

“That was kind of a challenge for me,” Garrison said. “And so I’m like, ‘I’ll show you, Buster.’ No idea where that dude is now.

“I’ve had a great career, so thanks to that guy for pissing me off, I guess.”

While Garrison used that as motivation, those types of comments can push women away from the industry.

Oftentimes, it doesn’t have to be as direct as that. It took Lewerke three years before she was hired to do shoots for Bleacher Report and Slam. Over that period, she saw a number of men hired for those jobs. When Lewerke finally did get hired, it happened because another woman in the industry referred Lewerke to the companies.

“I think proving yourself is hard,” Lewerke said. “Guys have been in this industry. They hire people who look like them, that they know, that are in their network. And that’s often just the same kind of looking people.”

There are also stereotypes and stigmas surrounding women and sports. There’s a false belief that women aren’t interested in sports. Or that women have ulterior motives for working in sports. That can be especially difficult when a photographer — like Athena — isn’t connected to a large media company.

Cassy Athena faced questions about why she wanted to shoot sports. (Photo by Luther Redd)
Cassy Athena faced questions about why she wanted to shoot sports. (Photo by Luther Redd)

“I’ve had a lot of that coming up in my career when I first started,” Athena said. “‘Why is this girl hanging around all of these athletes? What does she really want?' And it was genuinely I love taking pictures and I love being around the sport, but It took me years and years to prove that.”

On top of all that, gear is expensive, with some cameras costing five figures. Getting access to events can be difficult and the industry is highly competitive. Those issues make it harder for anyone looking to break into sports photography.

The sports industry is improving, but more work needs to be done

While those barriers still exist, the industry is getting better. It helps that society is more equipped to deal with issues of sexism today.

“There’s a lot more conversation just generally in society about how sexism isn’t something that should be tolerated,” Meyer said. “That’s not just a photography industry thing. That, again, is from the #MeToo movement, and I just think that people have the language now to say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t sit well with me, don’t say that.’ Or ‘Hey, we should give her a chance.’ If we’re going to take the time to mentor these five guys from your alma mater, let’s make the time for this young woman, too.”

Andrew Wilson competes in the Men's 200 Meter Breaststroke finals.
Andrew Wilson competes in the Men's 200 Meter Breaststroke finals on Day Four of the TYR Pro Swim Series. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

It also helps that women are more visible within the industry. Lewerke cited seeing Candace Parker breaking down basketball on “Inside the NBA” as something that could normalize women going into sports or inspire more women to pursue jobs in the industry. Lewerke also mentioned the increased focus on women’s sports, like the WNBA and NWSL as important factors.

Garrison has noticed that’s already changing. Over the past two decades, she’s seen more women working sporting events.

“There are more women on the field or at the ballpark,” Garrison said. “And women as team photographers, too. So I think that’s changed the dynamic significantly. It’s not as hostile as it used to be. Do we have a long ways to go? Well, yes we do. But I feel like progress has been made over the last 20-plus years, 24 years I’ve been doing this. And I’m hoping that trend continues.”

How can more women enter the industry?

For young women looking to get into the industry, social media is a strong place to start. There are Instagram accounts dedicated to women in sports photography, and that provides opportunities for women to find and connect with women in the industry.

Meyer — who answers every email and direct message she receives — has heard from young women on social media who were encouraged to get into sports photography after seeing her work. Athena echoed that sentiment. Lewerke has given advice to aspiring photographers who have reached out to ask what equipment she uses.

All of that will help when it comes time to start doing the work. When the time comes, get as much experience as you can.

“Shoot as much as possible,” Meyer said. “I think it is just as important to figure out what you love to shoot as what you really don’t like doing. There’s no wasted time there.”

The landscape of sports is changing, but challenges still remain. Women who choose to go into sports photography will still have moments where they face microaggressions and comments from men.

Garrison’s advice: “Kick their ass” with your work.

“I feel like all I can do is do my job to the best of my ability, and if other people that are working the event have problems with me because I’m a woman, that is more on them than it’s on me,” Garrison said. “I have enough things to worry about covering the game. I can’t carry their baggage, too. So that’s kinda how I approach myself.

“I’m here to do a job, I have every right to do this job and I’m going to do it the best I can."

Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera.
Mariano Rivera walks out of the bullpen before the game against the San Francisco Giants. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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