Be aware: this is a small sample from the complete project
This is a picture of me at my first roller derby match.
That's not me. That's Ellen Page from Whip It.
THIS is a photo of me at my first roller derby match.
I didn’t really know what I was doing, I got three penalties, two of which I wasn’t even sure for what, but I felt more confident and powerful than I had in a really long time. I really did feel like I was the badass Ellen Page, from Whip It.
So, what is it about roller derby that made me feel so accomplished and proud of myself?
There are not a lot of spaces that encourage woman to be bold, unapologetic, and confident, especially as beginners. But roller derby provides a space for this.
In order to find out more about what contributed to this unusual space, I interviewed, photographed, and skated with athletes across British Columbia. This led me to develop the photographic series On Track, Off Track: An exploration of identity and legitimacy in roller derby subculture.
BUT FIRST, WHAT IS ROLLER DERBY?
Contemporary roller derby (or ‘derby') is a contact sport, and it can be quite brutal (I’m still recovering from a torn meniscus from over a year ago). However, contact is regulated (no forearms, elbows, or head-butting), leading many to refer to it instead as a ‘collision sport’. Derby is played on quad roller skates and it is a sport where players play offence and defense simultaneously. Each team puts one player on a flat track that is trying to get around the track as quickly as possible in order to score points. Each team also puts four other people on the track whose job is to stop that one opposing person from scoring points, while simultaneously helping their own point-scoring player around the track.
Although roller derby is open to all genders, it is a particular special place for women. The social constructs of men and women play a dominant role in shaping the way people engage with sports, and roller derby is unusual because it gives an opportunity to move beyond these constructs. Sports played by women are regularly seen as the softened version of the men’s sport, the implications being that “the sport as performed by men is the real thing and the female version is somehow diluted by comparison”. However in this case ‘Roller derby’ immediately implies play by women, with ‘men’s roller derby’ needing the gender qualifier.
Roller derby is not just a space for sport, but a space to construct and enact alternative identities and challenge hegemonic norms. In roller derby, women are encouraged to be unapologetic aggressive, a departure from typical gender performance.
Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler considers gender to be performative—an identity that is worn and displayed. In roller derby, gender (and other aspects of identity) are often exaggerated, or “performed”. My photographic series and interviews focus on this aspect of roller derby.
On one end of the spectrum, roller derby encourages traditionally masculine performances of gender such as physical violence, and on the other, performances of femininity. These performances of gender identity on the track can be used both to “exaggerate familiar signifiers of traditional femininity and used to mock gender”. For instance, a common choice of dress in recreational leagues are fishnet stockings, which as sporting gear is both ludicrous, shocking, and barely socially acceptable in most circles outside of a roller derby track unless you’re at the Rocky Horror Picture Show. However, while wearing these fishnets, which are signifiers of femininity, women are encouraged to be bold and unapologetic, characteristics that are in opposition to traditional femininity.
There is also the derby name. Derby names are typically fun, aggressive, or sexual in nature, and are often a play on the athlete’s real name or identity. Some examples include Smashley Madison, Miss United Skates, Tragedy Ann, Cruel T, and my name, Jo to Hell.
It was important to me to use ethical photography during this project. This may be an unfamiliar term but I’ll unpack it here.
Roller derby is a unique space to be yourself, and I needed to make sure that my photographic process and product provided an equally safe space for expression, and did justice to the complexities of identity.
Photography has long been used to subjugate and oppress its subjects, instead of empowering them. With the camera comes power dynamics. The photographer holds the power to represent their subject, which is an immense responsibility that has been abused historically.
This can take the form of very salient examples of exploitation, like the famous Afghan Girl image by Steve McCurry, a white American male photographer. The photo demonstrates a subject, an Afghani girl, who became the face of one of the most well known photos in the world without even knowing it, without her consent, and without receiving any compensation.
But there are also less obvious examples of how photography can be used as a powerful tool.
Photographers often resort to using ‘familiar’ imagery that simply reinforces stereotypes instead of challenging the viewers understanding. By simply showing what is ‘familiar’ or what the viewer expects to see, the photographer simply plays into harmful narratives instead of using the powerful tool of the camera to challenge them.
This is particularly applicable to images of women and vulnerable communities, where subjects are often fetishized and turned into objects instead of complex human beings.
We can use an example of a photograph that gives an example of women in sport. In this image, women from Egypt and Germany compete in the women’s beach volleyball Olympics in Rio.This is an image by male photographer Antonio Lacerda. At first glance this might seem like a great photo. It clearly shows the contrast between cultures, and shows that there is some fierce competition going on.
But compare this to the image taken of the same game by female photographer Lucy Nicholson (Reuters).
Both women are now depicted to be elite athletes, and the image no longer sexualizes these Olympic athletes. It shows both women as Olympians, complete with faces, not as objects. There is still a distinct contrast between cultures, but it shows the women as equals and makes a compelling photo without sexualizing either.
One image depicts a culture clash made compelling through sexualization. The other depicts the unifying power of sport.
I hope this gave a example of how the role of the photographer has power, and is important to shaping narratives.
After the presentation of these photos I will briefly discuss how my work used frameworks of ethical photography to mitigate these challenges, and why that made these images powerful. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to just a few of the incredible women that shared their stories and their roller rink with me.
Krackin' Bones is a mom and a preschool teacher. She’s also part of the roller derby community. I want to share with you a couple quotes of hers, because I believe it really embodies the ideas I was bringing in earlier, of how roller derby is a space and an opportunity to perform a slightly alternative identity, and how that opportunity can have a profound impact.
“Roller derby was something I was very proud of. It made me feel strong and accomplished. What I love about roller derby is that it showed me I actually am an athlete. Just because I wasn’t good at soccer as a ten-year-old doesn’t mean I’m not an athlete. I love that roller derby celebrates the side of women that society tries to hide, and it’s also super feminine at the same time. I’ve played against a girl who wore bright pink sparkly lipstick and she could hit like a tank!” -- Krackin' Bones
natural born spiller
Natural born spiller was a lab tech at Quest University Canada. She discussed how performing one identity on the roller derby translated to the identity she had off the track:
“On the track I can hit people and be aggressive and that is welcomed and supported. Those are things that you don’t get for women in a lot of settings. it’s not being a bully. But it’s being allowed to have these characteristics you may not be encouraged to have otherwise." -- Natural Born Spiller
Venom Fatale is an incredible classical singer. She told me that she found roller derby to have some parallels to her musical career.
“Classical singers are often seen as soft and poised, and roller derby is sort of counter-balanced to that. roller derby requires you to be very open minded, and you have to be expressive with your body, and fearless in a lot of ways. That skill has translated over to my life from derby. Roller derby has made me more fearless.” -- Venom Fatale
Throbyn Heart, is a vet tech in Squamish. She told me that clients are often shocked to find out she plays roller derby, because they only know her from the clinic, where she is so sweet and gentle with their pets.
Lynn Detta called roller derby her ‘alternate superhero life’. She also told me
“Roller derby made me feel a lot more comfortable being aggressive and being strong. Just being around such confident women changed me and the way I look at myself and carry myself." -- Lynn Detta
Having looked at a few of the image I would like to return to my process.
Instead of highlighting game play like traditional sports photography, I am taking subjects out of the context of the action and placing players in conversation with their non-game self. The resulting work intends to shed light on the “vanishing points” at the intersection of subculture, sport, and identity, the spaces where these aspects of roller derby collide, A space that is often not seen by the general public, as it combines multiple sides of the same individual.
In my work I acknowledge the power dynamics at play and attempt to mitigate their effects.
I worked to create an environment and product that reconciles the power imbalance between photographer and subject. Although I held the camera as well as the means to represent the players, subjects took ownership over how they wanted to be portrayed. They made decisions about where they wanted to be, what they wanted to be doing, and what they wanted to wear. The end result is that they share creative ownership with me over the image, and can feel as proud of the photo as they do on the track.
One way I worked to mitigate the power differentials of the photographer was by turning the camera on myself, thereby placing myself in the somewhat equivalent position of being subject to the viewer’s gaze.
jo to hell
This is me. Student, photographer, and roller derby rookie. I hope that this work has invited you to consider the multiple identities that exist within each of us, and to challenge yourselves to find the spaces where you can be bold.
view all images from the project
This project would not have been possible without the support of:
Dr. Jamie Kemp, PhD // Quest University Canada // Quest University Students' Association // Sea to Sky Sirens
And the incredible participants: Dan, Diana, Emily, Fanny, Jenn, Kaci, Kareena, both Natalies, Nicole, Robyn, and Trish