At age 14, Ryan James Caruthers first discovered his passion for photography. When he started, he loved taking photos with his dad’s film camera. He immediately saw photography as a positive escape and soon began using himself as a subject, because he didn’t have anyone else to photograph. Growing up in the suburban town of Sewell, N.J., near Philadelphia, Caruthers felt out of place during his high school years, mainly due to a chest deformity, called pectus excavatum, which makes his chest appear to be caved in. Between his condition and being closeted about his sexuality, Caruthers felt distant from other boys and wasn’t comfortable joining in sports, which is traditionally seen at that age as a passage into manhood.
These memories led to his photo series, Tryouts, where Caruthers incorporated himself into various sports scenarios, in full costume, acting out scenes from activities he never joined. Meant as an “exploration of [his] story of boyhood,” the photos are compositionally similar to fashion images, with Caruthers appearing alone, indicating that there’s still no other teammates for him.
“I wanted to comment on how we, as males, are sort of forced into sports and how it’s a traditional thing that is still happening,” says Caruthers, “If you don’t fit into this athletic physical boy stereotype, then it’s sort of a strange experience, because you’re not fitting straight into this society.” In the U.S., the number of high school sports participants increased in 2015 to 7.8 million, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
For Tryouts, Caruthers even went back to his old middle school and high school to shoot some of the images. “It’s definitely strange going back to any school, because you feel like an outsider,” Caruthers says. “Just because so much has happened in the amount of time since you’ve been there.” But he adds, it was liberating to “be performing in this specific place.”
Caruthers sees his series as a way to point out the connection between masculinity and athleticism, and because of his body type, it’s an alternate way for him to experience these sports. “I thought it would be ironic to shoot with my body type,” Caruthers says. “Putting on a wrestling outfit altered how I performed for the camera.” While making these images, the idea of recreating the past and something that didn’t happen intrigued Caruthers, with Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s “contorted, elongated bodies” as a huge influence.
When asked if he dislikes sports, Caruthers says, “I’m just indifferent to them, I don’t despise them in any way, it’s just my experience with them has been estranged.”
Kenneth Bachor is TIME’s associate photo editor, overseeing entertainment and culture. Follow him on Instagram @kennethbachor.