A tangle of ten women careers down the wooden track at the Austin Sports Center in South Austin. The two teams, demarcated by their distinctly different uniforms of gingham tops and denim cutoffs versus the pleated skirts and white tie-front button-downs of a Catholic schoolgirl Halloween costume, ram into and shove each other as Pat Benatar blares and the audience goes wild from the stands.
For years, Felicia Graham found herself right beside the action, seated on the ground next to the players’ bench, taking photo after photo with her Nikon. “I got addicted from the get-go,” says Graham, who first encountered flat-track roller derby in 2005, when she was a graduate student studying photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin. “It was just empowering to watch them.”
The primarily female sport requires equal parts violence, performance, and skill. The teams appoint a jammer, who fights her way through the pack to score points by skating past her opponents. Meanwhile, four blockers from each team jostle to make space for their own jammer as well as trying to prevent the other team’s jammer from moving through, acting as both offense and defense simultaneously. And, of course, all of this is done on roller skates. After its creation in Austin in the early aughts, flat-track roller derby has become a global phenomenon. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association now has 417 leagues across 25 countries.
Graham vividly renders the physical intensity and theatrics of the sport in Rollergirls: The Story of Flat Track Derby (Trinity University Press, November 13). The photographs, shot completely in black and white, chronicle the Texas Rollergirls, Austin’s four-team league. Graham was there as they applied slashes of black eyeliner and glittery eye shadow before a bout and raised Lone Stars in triumph after scoring a victory. “I like black and white because it just shows the girls,” Graham says. “It’s not about the color; it’s about the emotion of the images.”
Graham, who wrote her 65-page graduate thesis on the Texas Rollergirls, became a part of the community. She spent untold hours with the players, attending bouts and tournaments with them from Tucson to London. Over the course of eleven years, she took upward of 50,000 shots of the athletes. But she herself never played; after witnessing torn ACLs and broken noses, she opted to remain on the sidelines. “Every time a new group of girls comes in, they ask me, ‘Why didn’t you ever skate?’ ” Graham says. “I’m like, ‘I need all four extremities to work.’ ”
Use the arrows to see more photos.