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Sheilas - The female biker scene in Victoria, Australia by Em Jensen

Em Jensen is a photographer hailing from Naarm (The Aboriginal name of the land) - Melbourne, Australia. Self-taught, Em photographs exclusively on film and super 8 mediums. She has a colourful portfolio consisting of a broad range of subjects such as themes of nostalgia, the Australian outback, the Australian character and many underrepresented subcultures of Melbourne. Her latest project, titled ‘Sheilas’, documents the women-only biker clubs in Victoria.

Sheilas is named after the female-only motorbike festival called Sheilas Shakedown that happens each year in Victoria, Australia. It is an inclusive event open to women of all backgrounds, including non-riders.

If you are not from Australia or New Zealand, the chances of you knowing the slang term ‘Sheila’ is slim. In our culture, the lingo is used to refer to girls and young women.

“I wasn’t sure about naming it [the project] that at first, but then I did do some research on the word and where it came from, and I really loved the relevance of the word to the photos. These women and the scenery photographed is quintessentially Aussie in so many ways, and Sheilas is such a classically Australian colloquialism.”
— Em Jensen

Here at The Analog Women, we love covering topics that are disproportionately represented and challenge the status quo. Thus, it was a delight to come across Em’s project.

Female and women bikers are regrettably not well-known. Unfortunately, we still belong to a time in which seeing a woman on a bike will make heads turn. And to add to that, female biker clubs are often seen through a pair of negative lenses.

EJ: It made me laugh so much when I told people about the series, and they asked me if the female motorcycle clubs were dangerous, like in some underworld biker club way. Mostly we just hung out and joked around.

Em says that everyone she met at the event was friendly and open to sharing their stories with her and being photographed by her. Of all the motorcycle clubs Em spent time with, she mainly focused on three: The Leatherettes, The Litas, and Dykes on Bikes. Most of these women bought a motorcycle without the knowledge there were such clubs. They were introduced to the scene when they looked for other people to ride with.

Each motorcycle club is unique and has a notable origin story. For example, The Leatherettes all have vintage motorcycles and catch up regularly to go for a ride and get pizza. And Dykes on Bikes were formed in the 1980s to help out gay men who were being assaulted at ‘beats’ —public parklands where they would meet with other gay men.

It was refreshing to hear about Dykes on Bikes’ origin story. There is hesitancy in society to see females as protectors. This is ironic given that females and women play protective roles in everyday life, from being older sisters to mothers to police officers and politicians.

Em also notes that the majority of the women involved in the motorcycle scene in Victoria are trailblazers for local feminist movements. The motorcycle scene and culture are heavily masculinised, and it has been this way for a long time. These female motorcycle clubs have fought hard for a space of their own within the scene.

Apart from being strictly female-identifying only, the groups are made up of a diverse range of demographics and welcome anyone interested in being a part of them.

Before the event, the girls meet up for coffee at The Old Bike Shop Café in Brunswick. From there, they all ride together to Ballan, where Sheilas Shakedown is held. The meet up at the café is hugely anticipated; and celebratory as the girls have not seen each other since the previous event.

Being a part of the motorcycle groups have also allowed many of them to forge strong friendships with one another. All of the girls look out for one another, and no one is left out. There is always an experienced rider at the back of every group ride to ensure no one is left behind and stay with anyone facing bike issues or breakdowns.

EJ: I can’t even begin to explain the group ride experience, being in the middle of hundreds of women on bikes, revving their engines in unison at every red traffic light. It’s honestly the coolest, most badass thing I’ve ever experienced. Being an all-female-identifying event, there’s this surreal sense of safety and freedom I hadn’t experienced before. It’s a really unique event, and because of this, it’s such an easy place to make connections and friendships.

Sheilas by Em Jensen is shot exclusively on 35mm film, and the series will be exhibited at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale throughout November and December. The series will also be touring throughout Melbourne and regional Victoria at various galleries and bars throughout 2022.

More of Em Jensen’s work can be found on her website and Instagram page.


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