On Track, Off Track

Josie Bauman

2018 - 2019

Canada; British Columbia, Canada; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Roller derby has its roots in resistance to traditional athletic practices, hegemonic norms, and performances of gender. It is a sport that is centered around community and inclusivity, created and maintained by the athletes.

The sport has changed significantly since it was first invented in the 20th century, yet it still retains many of the subversive elements that challenge conceptions of femininity and sport. However, the sport has now reached a critical moment, caught in a liminal space between becoming legitimate and retaining the elements that made the subculture unique. My images and research explore the notion that on the roller derby track athletes are able to perform aspects of their identity that are not socially acceptable off the track. Roller derby encourages women to be aggressive and bold, in contradiction to traditional expressions of femininity. I chose to research the subculture of roller derby through interviewing and photographing skaters. Photography is a method of inquiry that has long been used as a method of subjugation; a voyeuristic way of framing others through a lens of domination. I wanted to use photography, but I wanted to do so in a way that did not cause harm, and did not perpetuate the objectification of my subjects. There is currently no singular clear-cut methodology to conduct ethical photography, so in my work I acknowledge the power dynamics at play and attempt to mitigate their effects. The result is a conceptual photography series of a sport that is unusual in many ways.

These images serve to examine the capacity for multiple identity expressions in the subculture of roller derby, or ‘derby’. The photographs each feature a roller derby player from British Columbia, Canada. In each image there are two depictions of the same individual: the subject in their roller derby gear, and the subject as they are in an area of their life that is separate from derby, but central to their identity. By depicting two sides of the same athlete in the same image, these photographs juxtapose the roller derby identity and off-the-track identity of the subject in order to interrogate the idea that, in the subculture of roller derby, participants can become whoever they want, even as the sport strives to become more legitimate and regulated. This project explores the tension between roller derby’s movement towards legitimacy, and the performative identity that many participants of roller derby love.

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  • Venom Fatale |
    Classical Singer
    Age: 34
    Years of derby: 1.5 |

    “I have never been in such a supportive community in my life. Music is wonderful, but there’s still a level of knowing you could take somebody’s job, so there’s a lot of competition. In roller derby, everybody is there to really support each other, make them the best skater they can be because the better the skaters are the better the team is. Everybody makes each other better. And everybody is friendly, and just lovely.
    Classical singers are often seen as soft and poised, and all those sort of stuff, which is absolutely the case for some of the things that we need to do, and I guess the roller derby is sort of counter-balanced to that for me, but honestly I don’t think who I was when I played roller derby differs from who I am in other areas of my life. I like having a lot of little different things going on in my life, and if they can all bring out some little extra part of me that I didn’t know was there then great! And that’s what roller derby did. I consider myself a very open minded very expressive person, and roller derby is all of those things. It’s very open minded, and you have to be expressive with your body, and fearless in a lot of ways as to how you attack things, and so that translated over to my life as well from having been in derby for the past year and a half. Roller derby has made me more fearless.”

  • Nauti Lass |
    Canadian Coast Guard
    Age: 37
    Years of derby: 2 |

    “The coast guard is very task and focus oriented, which goes really well with derby because you’re working with a team and you’re having to make quick decisions and not question those decisions. You just have to work as a team to make those decisions work.
    The want to do better is within all of the players from the most timid to the most outgoing, and everyone works together to keep each other safe. I’ve actually seen other teams notice a weaker player on their opposing team and they see one of their teammates going for a big hit and have actually stopped their own teammate from doing the big hit on the opposing team, knowing that player is a newer player and she’s not going to take the hit well. It’s interesting to see how women play together and how they realize that they have babies at home or jobs to go to. And all of a sudden, as much fun as derby is, they still need to keep each other safe.”

  • Fanny in the Pack (left) |
    Pet mom
    Age: 31
    Years of derby: 7 |

    “I love the evolution of derby from a counterculture side-show to an international sport that has all levels of competition. There still is that counter culture but it’s a little more political than it was. I like roller derby for its inclusion, although there is still a long way to go. It’s hard to think of it as a counter culture other than knowing it was when I joined, now that I’m so immersed within it. Are there counter cultural elements to it? For sure. It’s super countercultural to put transgender people at the forefront of your thought when you’re building plans to make an event or tournament.” |

    Trish Trash (Right) |
    Pet mom
    Age: 39
    Years of derby: 3 |

    “When I began roller derby, I liked that it was a crazy new challenge unlike anything I had thought to attempt before. I like being competitive and continuing to grow as a skater, and being able to help new skaters develop and learn. One of my biggest challenges is having the courage to be bad at something so that I can eventually be good at it.
    I’d describe roller derby more ‘alternative’ than ‘fringe’. For a sport, or a whole organization of people to be this empowering to women in a sport that both men and women play is rare. There’s lots of mixed gendered teams, whereas you don’t run into that often in other competitive sports."

  • Lynn Detta |
    Age: 31
    Years of derby: 7 |

    “Roller derby is my alternate superhero life. It's nice to be around a particularly strong women physically and in terms of their personality, in terms of their spirit, they’re very strong people. It's really changed me and the way I look at myself in the way I carry myself. I'm pretty grateful to the sport for that.
    I've seen a shift towards trying to legitimize the sport as opposed to it being very theatrical and more of an entertainment production. I've seen a lot of debate over what should remain of the traditional derby and what should be changed. From the beginning, people always have their derby name. Nobody goes by their real name. It's a persona and it helps you get yourself into the mindset that you're going to play a game and it's like war paint. But there's a lot of people that have started to move towards using their real names, like most athletes would. Lynn Detta has been my roller derby name since the beginning. I’ve played all over North America and if you ask someone who Jen Bach was, they wouldn't be able to tell you.”

  • Throbyn Heart |
    Veterinarian Technician
    Age: 34
    Years of derby: 5 |

    “I have different personalities for each area that I'm participating in life. Here at work, I'll be serious. I'll still be fun, but I'll be serious and buckle down. When I’m bartending I can turn on a different little less subtle aspect and serve the drinks with a big smile, flirty, whatever I need to do. Derby, I can definitely turn on the serious game mode. There’s a bit more aggression too. Some people that I know just can't believe that I play Roller Derby because they know me from the clinic. “Oh wow she's so gentle”.”

  • Ruthless Reed |
    Teaching Assistant
    Age: 19
    Years of derby: 8 |

    “I was on Team Canada Junior when I was 15 and again when I was 18. After that I tried to take a break and I just couldn’t, so I tried out for the Angels. Right now, I need some fun derby as opposed to some really competitive derby. Competitive derby is really stressful. It’s a lot of training and mental preparation-- I think any athlete would describe a World Cup as stressful. Whereas, fun derby, all the teams are friends. Everyone gets together after win or lose.”
    Years of derby: 8

  • Krackin' Bones |
    Preschool teacher
    Age: 28
    Years of derby: 1 (currently on hiatus) |

    “Roller derby was something I was very proud of and something that made me feel strong and very accomplished. I’m not an athlete and that was something that was a big part of my identity growing up. That I’m not athletic. And so I just kinda assumed I couldn’t be. And 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. It made me realize-- not that I’m old-- but I was scared to do things I’ve always done before like climbing trees. I was suddenly thinking “am I gonna get hurt?” and derby completely took that away from me. Am I gonna get hurt? Probably, let’s see what happens!”

  • Canadian Bacon |
    Professor of the physical sciences
    Age: 49
    Years of derby: 11 |

    “My teammates over the past years have been people that I would’ve never even met outside of derby, yet they’re my partner on the track. To have a bond based on your common goals and physically working towards those goals together despite having nothing else in common is really valuable to me.
    In higher education institutions, which is where I have worked for my entire adult life, it’s extremely limited who even walks in the door. That immediately cuts you off from 90 percent of the population. I think derby and being aware of other people and their perspectives helps me be a better teacher and helps me to shed light on important things that are hugely missing in education.”

  • Natural Born Spiller |
    Laboratory technician
    Age: 38
    Years of derby: 7 |

    “On the track I can hit people and be aggressive and that's attractive and it is allowed, and it is welcomed and supported and encouraged. Those are things that you don’t get for women in a lot of settings. Even if I don’t think about that consciously all the time, I think that’s true… It’s just something you just never necessarily learn as a woman or a girl. Those are things I really enjoyed about roller derby. It’s not a mean thing, it’s not being a bully. But it’s being allowed to have those sorts of characteristics you may not be encouraged to have otherwise.
    I found that after I started playing derby my alter ego began to follow me into my daily life more and more. I’ve grown because of roller derby. It’s given me confidence and a voice that I didn’t necessarily have before.”

  • Poison IV |
    Construction worker
    Age: 26
    Years of derby: 6 |

    “We’re always trying to recruit more people, and we have seen people that are much older—or any age—do it, so we know that it’s possible, and it’s all inclusive. Gender, age, race, doesn’t matter. I was shocked when I started and found out there are some people in their 60s playing derby! Someone convinces them they can do it, and a lot of them kill it!”

  • (Self portrait) |
    Jo to Hell |
    Student and photographer
    Age: 21
    Years of derby: 1 |


    In the words of Susan Sontag, “photographs alter and enlarge our notion of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe”. By creating photographs that are outside the scope of traditional sports and portrait photography, and depict a somewhat insular sport, I strive to challenge the viewer’s understanding of who is involved in roller derby. By doing this, I aim to redefine what a roller derby player is, beyond the stereotypes that follow the sport, and to encourage the viewer to see roller derby as something that is “worth looking at” not just as a sport, but as a rich subculture. I want to encourage the viewer to think about the nuances and individuality of the subjects in the images and the complexity of the sport and subculture itself.
    In this creative process, not only am I creating photographs that differ from traditional sports and portrait photography, but I also create an environment in which photography is an active collaboration of subject and photographer. My photographic process is motivated by the desire to take photographs that do not create or thrive off of an imbalance of power weighted in the photographer’s favour.
    Photography has often been used as a method of subjugation; a voyeuristic way of framing others through a lens of domination. Although there is currently no singular clear-cut methodology to conduct ethical photography, in my work I acknowledge the power dynamics at play and attempt to mitigate their effects. In this roller derby project, I attempted to create a creative 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 however I chose (which is a great power and great responsibility), there were aspects of this project that stopped me from having complete control over the images, and encouraged subjects to take ownership over how they wanted to portray themselves. The athletes I photographed shaped the images. They made decisions about where they wanted to be, what they wanted to be doing, and what they wanted to wear.

    I also attempted to mitigate the outsider’s gaze of the photographer by turning the camera on myself and taking a self-portrait as a roller derby player and student, thereby placing myself in the somewhat equivalent position of being subject to the viewer’s gaze.