strong side

words: jane lerner

photography: alejandra carles-tolra

The women's rugby team at Brown University is its own tribe, a tight-knit crew well known on campus for its camaraderie and toughness. Photographer Alejandra Carles-Tolra spent the 2013-14 season—the year before the club gained full varsity status—on the pitch at Marvel Field, capturing intimate portraits of the players in all their rugged glory. Like the Bears' favorite pregame chant, these are the bold, the beautiful and the Beasts of Brown.

Carles-Tolra studied theater and sociology before landing on photography. Like any good performer or social scientist, she’s fascinated by the ways we squeeze into or break free of expected roles. “I'm drawn to how we define and categorize people,” Carles-Tolra says. “If a woman plays rugby, we're going to associate certain things to her femininity, to her identity. My intention is to dig deep into what makes each individual unique.”

Most team members have never played rugby before joining the squad, drawn to the sport by its physicality and camaraderie. Rugby is famous for its profound athletic demands, but the sport is all-embracing—players emphasize that there is room for every body type and personality.

In such a high-impact sport, mouthguards prevent players from losing teeth in a tackle. The shield is more than a necessary part of a player’s safety kit: “Immediately it shows power and strength, even danger,” Carles-Tolra says.

The Brown Bears are part of the Ivy Rugby Conference, playing against Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Army, among other famed institutions.

“I usually spend a year or two photographing the same group until I'm comfortable with them and they are comfortable with me,” Carles-Tolra says. She reports that when the photo series was first exhibited, the women “were really happy. They thought I portrayed them in a very heroic way.”