“The Bears” is a series of photographs portraying women who are part of Brown University’s rugby team. While being part of an intellectually demanding environment, these students have decided to also join a very physically demanding sport: a sport that will introduce them to a community that will not only challenge them to push their limits as athletes, but will strengthen them both physically and mentally. I am drawn to portraying the young women who join the team, not only as a sport, but as a way to be introduced to a community with a strong identity where they can find an identity of their own.

[In this video interview, Carles-Tolra discusses both her recent series, “The Bears” as well as a previous but related series, titled “Fall In”]

Through my portraits, I aim to bring a broader understanding of their group identity. Women who join the sport are commonly pictured to fit a masculine stereotype. But what does it mean to be a rugby girl? Is there such a thing as a rugby girl? Or are they just girls who play rugby? Described as a sport of “elegant violence,” rugby has a complex identity that is often simplified. In my photographs, I’m interested in enhancing the dualities that define the sport and the athletes: violence and grace, weakness and strength, masculine and feminine.

In 2016, for the first time, women’s rugby will be competing at the Olympic level. In addition, after 37 years, Brown University recently elevated women’s rugby from the club level to full intercollegiate varsity status (becoming the 10th university to do so in the U.S. and the 2nd Ivy League).

We are now witnessing a historic event that both celebrates the persistence and successful efforts of female athletes—and challenges the meaning of “masculine” sports.

—Alejandra Carles-Tolra