Whenever Cassy Athena has faced a setback or obstacle, she’s turned it into a distinguishing advantage.
After doctors removed a benign tumor from her brain in 2009, she realized she was meant to do something great.
In 2011, she lived a regular life working at an animation studio in Los Angeles. Today, she’s the most famous photographer in the sports world at only 33.
Here’s what we can learn from Cassy’s unique journey.
Gizmos Won’t Make You Great
Cassy’s first loves were basketball and photography. During the 2011 NBA lockout, she found a way to keep both interests alive through the Drew League — a pick-up basketball league that draws visits from NBA All-Stars and Grammy-nominated rappers.
It turned out the league didn’t have a photographer, so she just showed up one weekend and took a bunch of photos.
Then she kept showing up.
Soon enough, she was the league’s primary photographer. Unpaid, of course.
According to Cassy, she wasn’t a trained photographer when she started out. She didn’t have decent equipment, nor were her pictures particularly remarkable.
What she lacked in resources and technical prowess, she made up for by finding a unique angle.
At this point, basketball photography was focused on in-game action shots from NBA games. Once the season ended, the public had little access to what players were doing. Keep in mind, we’re talking about pre-Instagram days.
Cassy saw a need in the market and filled it.
How? She took candid shots of the players with their kids and their teammates. She focused on the players’ interpersonal qualities more than their athleticism. For her, it was deeper than capturing another poster dunk.
Even though her shots were not as technically advanced, the players loved how she displayed a different side of them, so they started inviting her to more events.
Both her skill and equipment have improved, but if you asked her, she’d still credit her success to her eye for capturing “moments.”
She explains it like this: You could be sitting next to her, she could hand you her fancy camera with the perfect lens and optimal settings, and you still wouldn’t capture the same level of photos she does. I, for one, believe her.
Cassy’s trajectory highlights the minor role gadgets and gizmos play in success. It’s not about finding the most effective workout, optimal diet, or most groundbreaking sales funnel, it’s about doing the work. Even if Cassy had started out with the best camera, it would’ve meant nothing if she didn’t work as relentlessly as she did.
In other words, gizmos are useful for maximizing your talent, but they are no substitute for ability and passion.
Go Directly to the Source
Despite her Drew League experience, established outlets refused to hire Cassy for on-court work because she wasn’t professionally trained.
She eventually found an animation job that paid the bills and kept doing photography gigs on the side. Soon enough, the same agencies that had turned her down were trying to figure out how she was taking photos at players’ private birthday dinners and workouts.
Although it took a long time to establish herself, Cassy’s connections with players are now her defining advantage. Instead of being dejected when traditional outlets denied her a chance, she had the courage to go above their heads and create a new industry standard.
These days, Cassy can get players who are notorious for disliking the media to pose for portraits. Everyone was shocked when she got Russel Westbrook to pose for this picture, as it seems like something he’d never do. Why did he make an exception? Because she’s Cassy Athena, of course.
Because of her ability to win players’ trust, Cassy wins on two fronts. She’s an amazing photographer, but she also finds opportunities to take photos nobody else can.
The Best Networking Isn’t Networking
Now that she’s well-known, Cassy gets daily DMs asking how to gain access to high profile athletes and rappers.
Although well-intentioned, these requests are interesting because it’s not at all how she did it. She didn’t start out saying she would only snap Paul George or LeBron. Instead, she shot whoever was in front of her.
Playing basketball at Glendale Community College, Cassy was friends with a lot of athletes. Because she loved photography, she started taking photos of the other athletes at school. She continued this practice when she transferred to California State University, Northridge.
Most people would have said she was wasting her time. None of the players at these schools were destined for NBA stardom. Cassy knew this, but it didn’t matter because she was doing what she loved to do.
Even at the Drew League, she primarily associated with younger, up-and-coming players. When players like Brandon Jennings started inviting her around more often, she made sure she delivered quality work quickly.
She couldn’t have predicted what would come of these relationships — she was just doing what she liked and seeing where it took her.
One of Cassy’s most fruitful practices has been developing relationships with top high school recruits. It may sound opportunistic now, but high school events weren’t a big deal back then. Even that came naturally.
One of her early gigs was for UA Elite 24 in 2013. She didn’t get paid for her work, but she was flown out to take photos at a camp of top high school prospects — including Devin booker, Kelly Oubre, and Stanley Johnson.
UA Elite 24 seems like an incredible opportunity in retrospect, but how many photographers would have done it for free before it was cool? Probably not many.
Through these encounters, she not only earned the players’ trust, but also their friendship. She showed her commitment and love for the sport. She became a better photographer. That’s what led her to where she is today.
When people ask Cassy how they can do what she’s doing, they’re ostensibly asking how to work with some of the most famous people in the world. To them, Athena’s success is the result of some deliberate networking technique. In reality, it’s clear that Athena photographed anyone and everyone in her life because she liked photography. When some of those people went on to become huge names, she had a relationship with them because she cared about them before anyone else did.
Ultimately, Cassy didn’t get here by “networking.”
To the players, she’s not another photographer, she’s a genuine friend who also happens to take great photos.
As Cassy’s career shows, the best networking isn’t networking at all. Good networking is just building organic relationships over time.
Turn Weaknesses Into Strengths
Early in her career, Cassy noticed that players at local colleges were posting her photos without giving her credit.
She hoped adding a watermark to her photos would help, but the players just cropped it out.
It bothered her that nobody cared about the person behind the camera.
At the very least, she wanted credit for her work.
Unfortunately, people viewed watermarks as annoying distractions from the real photo. So, Cassy flipped this perception on its head.
Every famous painting in the world has the artist’s signature on it. She decided her watermark was going to be her signature on her artwork — her photos.
Her name would give her photos worth.
The Cassy Athena watermark is now a status symbol. Having Cassy take your photo means you’ve made it. So much so, in fact, that people actually try to photoshop her watermark onto their photos, and NBA players proudly rep t-shirts that display her watermark.
Once again, Cassy took something that was, at best, a hinderance and turned it into one of the defining tools of her success.
What’s your watermark?
Whatever you lack — credibility, experience, money, talent — flip it on its head.
The Power of Uniting Your Passions
Ultimately, Cassy’s success lies in the combination of her different passions: basketball, art, and photography. By the way, she’s still not an official NBA photographer, but she’s the basketball photographer. She has created her own category, and now others want to follow her.
Most of you probably aren’t trying to become NBA photographers, but we all know what it feels like to be told, no, you can’t do this. Our impulse might be to give up, but we can find ways to turn our obstacles into unique strengths like Cassy Athena has.
When the traditional angle fails, make your own.
Like Cassy, we should aim to win at our own game instead of getting by in someone else’s game.