"I told them that I could never play rugby. Those girls would destroy me," says Alejandra Carles-Tolra, the artist behind The Bears, a photo series concentrating on Brown University's all-female rugby team. "It's so scary, even though it's very graceful to see. It had some brutal aspect to it. I've broken way too many bones in my life—I thought that one more was too many."
Carles-Tolra is on the phone from New York. Until recently, the Spanish photographer was based in New England on North America's east coast. She has now moved to London. But let's rewind a bit: This story starts with a theater-obsessed kid in Barcelona who, fascinated by performance and identity, decides to study it formally at university through sociology.
"I was always obsessed with this kind of idea of how we can have multiple identities or how our identity changes in the context, in the groups we're a part of," says Carles-Tolra. "So I did theater as a way to explore that, and that took me to sociology because I wanted to do in a much more formal way… But I felt this disconnection between what I was trying to understand and the language that I was using."
Deterred by the dense, exclusionary, sometimes inaccessible academic language of the subject, she turns to a universal method of communication: photography. She moved from Spain to Boston, went to grad school, and threw herself into all aspects of the medium.
During the process of making Fall In, an earlier photography series documenting the work of young Bostonian Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) cadets, she found the female cadets a more interesting subject than the males. "The young men were trying to deal with this dual identity: Trying to perform this military persona yet trying to define, at the same time, who they are. They're pretty young and they still don't know who they want to be. I was very interested in that duality.
"Then with women, it became even more complex. There was a third layer of complexity, in which they were not only trying to deal with that duality that the men were worrying about, but they also had to perform in a male-dominated field," she explains.
Afterwards, Carles-Tolra moved to Providence, Rhode Island (home of the Ivy League's Brown University) and resolved to document an even more female-focused group in a male-dominated environment to document. "I wanted to find a community surrounded by women yet performing in a field that was male-dominated and in a field that, because of that community, they were going to be associated with certain stereotypes."
This brings us to The Bears. The titular Brown Bears are part of a thriving minority in American collegiate sports culture—that of all-female rugby teams. "One thing that really surprised me was the variety of women and the variety of reasons someone joins a sport like football. Some were very confident women; they represent power and strength. And some were really shy, still struggling [with] defining who they are and who they want to become. They feel like they're protected by this group power."
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The power and contrast between the individual and the group are almost palpable in Carles-Tolra's muscular group shots, where female faces peep, mid-scrum, through an almost abstracted latticework of thighs and stomachs. "In some of those pictures, the expressions you see, they look scared! They look worried! They don't want to get hurt. But they're protected by these big strong legs. It's that metaphor of, you might feel weak but you are surrounded by other people who will protect you," explains Carles-Tolra.
Carles-Tolra's documentary-style approach (she carries a Nikon D800 and a small flash to remain unobtrusive) is enmeshed with her theatrical background. Individual portraits were shot off the cuff with the flash against a dark sky for drama and contrast. Unlike many portraits of this type, the female figures are not immobile or passive. A feeling of physical restlessness—of activity and agency—seeps through the frame. "All the portraits were taken while they were actually waiting for the ball. So they are about to move or thinking about moving or a move. They're just training… I didn't want them to feel very static. I don't want portraits to feel very formal with The Bears, because they're performing. I really wanted to embrace that performative aspect and theatrical aspect of the character that is about to do something."
"The great thing about rugby is that there is a place for every person and different body types," she adds, "You can be very skinny and be a great asset, or you can be really big and strong and also be good for the team. There's no one specific body type or one specific personality that works with rugby." In a collegiate environment dominated by men, it is rare to find a steel-strong bubble in which women can thrive. Carles-Tolra may never break a bone on the pitch, but to the artist, the sport comes highly recommended.