• The Roller Girl Project: Beneath the Surface (Photo by Cory Layman) (Cory Layman)Source: Cory Layman
This online photo project explores the diversity and acceptance amongst the fierce and powerful competitors of this gruelling sport.
Genevieve Dwyer

4 Feb 2016 - 2:31 PM  UPDATED 4 Feb 2016 - 4:20 PM

Cory Layman is a US-based photographer who stumbled across the burgeoning sport of roller derby nearly a decade ago and was immediately drawn to its unique nature.

“I was first exposed to derby in 2007 when it was about as much spectacle and novelty as it was a sport,” Layman tells SBS Online.

“It was still a sport, but it had these crazy costumes and names and that was intriguing.”  

For the uninitiated, roller derby is a speed-skating team sport that’s been around for decades, but has experienced a resurgence – particularly as a female sport. With a reputation for being somewhat rough – the teams of five race around a track and have to try and lap each other – often by smashing their opponents out of the way.

What’s most remarkable about it though is not the brutality of how the game is played but the inclusiveness of those who play it. Women of all ages, sizes and sexual orientation seem to be drawn to the sport.   

“I love the spirit of adventure and the celebration of being awesome,” Layman says.

“The celebration of awesome is about loving oneself and not being perfect. So, derby players seem to take great joy in thumbing their nose at popular culture and are willing to push back against it.”

Introduced to the sport by a team in Indiana, US, called the Bleeding Heartland Rollergirls, Layman’s fascination led to him becoming a regular attendee of the team’s bouts, where he began shooting the players in action. From there, he launched his blog, a fascinating ongoing photo series titled The Roller Girl Project.

“This gives me an awesome place to play where I have people who want to be part of photographs that defy stereotypes, push boundaries, and let them inspire others,” explains Layman.  

“So, I take it as a challenge to create projects that comment on culture, showcase the beauty that sits inside each person.”

What is most striking about the images is that while all of the female bodies on show come in a variety of shapes and sizes, they all seem to display a fierce inner strength – redefining the meaning of athleticism and showcasing just what the female body is capable of.

“While derby is nearly a hundred years old, its modern incarnation has been created predominately by women,” explains Layman.

“Most other sports that people commonly play have a male dominated history and culture, and most of those sports were at one time (and possibly still are), hostile to women, minorities, and LGBT people.

“So, derby essentially started with a clean slate and the women who created modern derby were able to make a culture where everyone was welcome and equal.”

One particular series in Layman’s long running blog, titled Beneath the Surface, focused on eight skaters of African descent, which led into a discussion about their experience within the roller league as women of colour.

One skater, Petti LaBelle (pictured above) told Layman that, “When I volunteered for "The Roller Girl Project", my focus was to spread a message I've proclaimed from an early age: though my appearance is unique, beneath the surface, I am the same as everyone else.”

Layman is keen to point out though that while the sport may appear to be very accepting, “derby is not without its problems.”

“Derby is very white,” he explains. “I think it's safe to say that not every roller derby league is perfect in its record on creating a great environment for women of colour.”

“However, I'm probably pretty safe in saying that every league wants to be better and would welcome anyone of colour who wants to be part of their league.”

Regardless of a player’s size, shape, age or race, all of Layman’s subjects seem to display the same determination – which is what has what has led him to the most important lesson he has learned from his subjects. Layman says it’s to “Keep going and don't stop.”