Her name is Lucky Day and she stares straight at you, lips slightly parted as if snarling, challenging you. She stands tall in a fighting stance, hips slightly cocked to one side, a pair of dusty skates in her grasp. Her black knee and elbow guards are her armour. Tattoos of delicate foliage twist their way around each of her upper arms, like war paint.
Lucky Day is one of the women Nikki Toole has photographed for her latest project, Roller Girl. Inspired by 19th century military portraits, her photographs depict members of the Victorian Roller Derby League as gritty, modern-day warriors.
Originally from Scotland, the Melbourne-based photographer believes that her roots have influenced her portraiture style. She cites the Scottish tradition of military portraiture, which often shows soldiers in their war gear. She explores the notion that the portrait is not simply about the ‘sitter’, but also about the portrait as a “historical marker of dress, culture and body armour from that era”. Swap the subjects from military men in uniform to roller derby girls and a crew of female warriors in hot shorts, knee guards and skates is born. “It all came together last year when I was doing my project on skaters and I met the roller derby people,” she recalls.
While the shift in subject is obvious enough, Toole has replicated the formal elements of the military portrait in her own way, shooting in natural daylight without the aid of any artificial lighting.
“The girls are all photographed in the same way, with very similar poses, but they all have different characters. I only use whatever natural light comes into my studio, which lets their individual personalities come through.”
The roller derby girls’ strength was what attracted the photographer to her subjects. Her aim was to portray the women in their natural state, without retouching their images.
“They are all very strong girls in their own right and they have a kind of confidence that comes through in the photos,” says Toole. “When they go out on the tracks and battle it out, they have this whole other identity.”
This is typical of roller derby girls. By day, they can be your favourite barista, the checkout girl or even a teacher. But by night, in the bruising derby arena, their alter egos emerge in the form of characters like Lucky Day, Scarlett O’Hurta and Slam Punk, pushing and shoving their way around the tracks in what is arguably the first female-only contact sport.
Lucky Day, more commonly known as Nell Day, ditches the skates during working hours to teach Latin and French at a high school, but she thinks Toole’s portrayal of roller derby girls as modern warriors is spot on. “Some people think we are just girls in fishnets and skates, but our league really focuses on athleticism and sports,” she says.
“Nikki’s approach really shows how tough the girls are; you can see it in their eyes, the space you’re in when you’re getting ready for a bout.”
Roller Girl is an ongoing project, which Toole plans on continuing for a full year. Although the project has only covered Melbourne so far, she is hoping to take it around Australia and is inviting roller girls of any skill level and age to participate.