For Alejandra Carles-Tolra, photography transforms the world into a theater. It immerses her in otherwise distant cultures and environments, granting her the capacity to capture the story behind an individual’s identity within a two-dimensional space. In her latest series of photographs, “The Bears,” Carles-Tolra simultaneously pursues her fascination with individuals who share a strong group identity and discovers what it would be like to be part of an American university’s sports team: the Brown women’s rugby team.
“The Bears,” which was on display at the Chazan Family Gallery at Rhode Island College from Jan. 28 to Feb. 27, captures the many dualities found in women’s rugby: violence and grace, weakness and strength, masculinity and femininity. Through her photography, Carles-Tolra questions stereotypes of the “rugby girl,” revealing that traditional perceptions of the team as masculine and strong do not necessarily define the individuals within it, many of whom are not just “rugby girls” when taken out of the group context.
While Carles-Tolra was exposed to photography from a young age through her father, she only began considering it as a career when studying at the University of Barcelona, she said. As a sociology major, she chose to use photography as a tool to conduct and present her research, she said.
Since beginning her graduate studies at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Carles-Tolra has completed two major projects: “Fall In,” which features college students in ROTC, and “The Bears.” Both projects focus on how community involvement shapes personal identity.
Upon moving to Providence, Carles-Tolra began in-depth research about the identities of college athletes. “I’ve always been very fascinated by sports in American universities,” she said. “It’s not like that in Spain at all … there are some people who play soccer, basketball, but that’s pretty much it. There is no competition between schools in regards to sports. So this for me has always just been something you see in movies.”
As to why she chose the women’s rugby team as her subject, Carles-Tolra said, “I wanted to photograph women who are … struggling to find their own identity because of their age, but at the same time are in a very male-dominated sport.”
Originally interested in often-stereotyped sports such as ballet, which is often viewed as feminine, Carles-Tolra was immediately intrigued when she came across Brown women’s rugby, a sport to which she had no prior exposure, and was “fascinated by the idea of diversity in the group.”
“The exciting thing about doing a project like this is that I know I’m going to have some ideas before I photograph that are going to be totally broken up … it’s a very enriching experience,” she said.
The process was as much about research as about the creative process. After attending the training sessions, home games and even following the players to a game at Dartmouth, Carles-Tolra came to better understand the dynamics of college athletics.
Rugby “can be very physical, but there is also a lot of camaraderie … it is a group that has a very strong identity but is also a safe environment in which (players) are able to find their own identity and grow to become who they want to be,” she said.
Her perception of rugby also underwent a drastic change. “I always thought of rugby as just bruises, blood and broken noses … but I actually learned to appreciate the grace in the sport,” Carles-Tolra said, adding that she was surprised to see girls who were smaller than her in size contributing so much strength and spirit to the team.
Within the collection of photographs, Carles-Tolra believes the four close-up shots of players in a scrum best capture the overall message of the project. “I was … thinking about how the viewer could feel like (players) are part of a group,” she said. “They are intimidated and yet they are also feeling powerful, because they are part of this very intense moment.”
As for the players, seeing the photographs at the exhibition for the first time made the purpose behind Carles-Tolra’s project clear. “We always talk about it on our team that we have a good amount of diversity … and I think the pictures speak for (themselves),” said Oksana Goretaya ’17, captain of the women’s rugby team.
Goretaya said she found the photograph of one of the player’s bruised legs most intriguing, because she perceived its subject matter as very different from what sport photographers usually depict.
The photographs accurately depict the nature of playing rugby on a team, Goretaya added. “She was able to capture real moments of our team and the real people who play. We didn’t do our makeup specifically for her pictures … it was really candid.”