• PROOF:
  • December 2, 2013

A Young Explorer Joins the Circus

“They offered me a job on my first night there. They turned on the music and I went to perform for the first time.” —Emily Ainsworth, National Geographic Young Explorer

Emily Ainsworth may have the best story about gaining photo access that I’ve ever heard. While producing a radio documentary about Mexican circuses for the BBC in 2008, she showed up at the Circo Padilla and was handed a costume and sent to the stage to dance.

She had no prior experience as a dancer.

“My main skill was that I looked quite gangly and white, and people thought it would be funny if I had a dancing act—it gave me access that I wouldn’t have had any other way,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Brandon and Brian Cedeno, Ecuadorian foot jugglers, enter the big top of Circo Vazquez in Mexico City.
Brandon and Brian Cedeno, Ecuadorian foot jugglers, enter the big top of Circo Vazquez in Mexico City.

After her first experience living and performing with the circus, Ainsworth completed a master’s degree in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She then pitched the idea to National Geographic of continuing her documentary work in Mexico.

“I wanted to do a story about what was life behind the curtain. I had built up relationships with some really interesting people there,” she said.

Left: Lluvia, the daughter of the animal keeper, plays with a magic wand. Right: Cynthia, the magician's assistant, applies makeup backstage in Circo Atayde, Veracruz.
Left: Lluvia, the daughter of the animal keeper, plays with a magic wand. Right: Cynthia, the magician’s assistant, applies makeup backstage at Circo Atayde in Veracruz.

Ainsworth, who is based in London, received a National Geographic Young Explorers grant, and returned to Mexico in 2011 to take photos at seven different circuses. She lived in trailers among the performers to give herself as much access as possible.

Celia, the wife of the tightrope walker in American Circus, two weeks before her due date. Mexico City.
Celia, the wife of the tightrope walker in American Circus, two weeks before her due date, Mexico City

“The first time I went [in 2008] I was just shooting photographs as a way of capturing the memories and experiences, as anyone does. When I went back with National Geographic I was trying to tell more of a story—instead of just capturing pictures of people I liked.”

She continued: “I was looking at the art of transformation—I wanted to show how the performers were in real life. Performance is about masquerade and illusion and I wanted to explore that more.”

The boys in Circo Vazquez practice on a tightrope in Mexico City.
The boys in Circo Vazquez practice on a tightrope in Mexico City.

In her current work, Ainsworth continues to explore themes of performance around the world. Recent projects include documenting traditional magicians in the slums of India, as well as samba schools in Rio de Janeiro.

Kenny and Romy Cedeno, Ecuadorian gymnasts, extinguish a flaming hoop after their flying act in Circo Vazquez.
Kenny and Romy Cedeno, Ecuadorian gymnasts, extinguish a flaming hoop after their flying act at Circo Vazquez.

National Geographic Young Explorers grants help cover field project costs for hard-working, passionate, creative individuals with great ideas. We focus on the disciplines we’re known for, as well as emerging fields that matter most to understanding, and improving, the world we share. Read more about our young explorers here.

You can see more of Emily Ainsworth’s work on her website and watch a video of her NG Live! Presentation here, and in the video below.

There are 38 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Simon
    November 18, 2015

    What a remarkable, authentic and brave journey you have undertaken here Emily thanks for taking we the viewer into the world of the circus.

  2. Thai Tran
    June 30, 2014

    They all seems to be very happy (smiles) to be a Performer in all of the shoots….

  3. Sylvia Zolezio
    June 30, 2014

    I find the photography very interesting.
    I admire the work of the circus artists,
    I feel sorry for the life they lead, specially the children.

  4. Jack T. Shannon, Ph.D.
    June 29, 2014

    Done with your usual degree of excellence. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Ronni
    June 29, 2014

    Circus life may be a tough life, but it is a legacy for many families, for whom performing is a way of life– their craft, their art, and a way to make a living. They are living the life that many bohemian spirits dream of.

  6. Aspy
    June 29, 2014

    Although I enjoy a circus performance, I sympathize with the individuals working and performing, with the ‘roaming’ lives they have to lead!

  7. Salim Khan
    December 13, 2013

    I feel sad about the people in the circus, specially if it is a travelling one. I wonder about the families they leave at home or the children they take along.

  8. Pierre Luteke
    December 11, 2013

    C’est bon

  9. mirwais
    December 7, 2013

    nice photo I liked

  10. Mairianna
    December 5, 2013

    Hi ,, with my salute … Like

  11. masroor ahmad
    December 5, 2013

    very interesting and tough life..

  12. Ahmad Dodo Isa
    December 5, 2013

    Very nice page.

  13. alfonso hidalgo lopez
    December 5, 2013

    Habria manera de que pudieran publicarlo en español gracias

  14. kannan
    December 4, 2013

    good msg

  15. Prashanth T.R
    December 4, 2013

    nce job

  16. Andre Camara
    December 3, 2013

    Truly amazing.

  17. Heri
    December 3, 2013

    Amazing

  18. sayeed
    December 3, 2013

    like

  19. Ahsan Rasheed
    December 3, 2013

    Very thrilling.

    Normally we don’t bother about the lives behind the curtains. It is a new way of seeing the life.

  20. pars
    December 3, 2013

    very nice info

  21. thilegesh@@
    December 3, 2013

    Verry nice

  22. Tylah
    December 3, 2013

    Sounds amazing! What a great experience to have!

  23. umarkhan
    December 3, 2013

    is viry very nice

  24. asim
    December 3, 2013

    nice

  25. avik bose
    December 3, 2013

    life behind the stage.. unknown and yet so amazing.

  26. Ellen MCNatt
    December 3, 2013

    National Geographic has also presented us with some of the most talented, bright, and created people.

  27. samer.monzer
    December 3, 2013

    Photos rise shine my soul

  28. saini
    December 3, 2013

    very good job

  29. Oshim
    December 2, 2013

    Nice

  30. Anton Padmiyanto
    December 2, 2013

    It’s always an interesting story to read how ‘troubadour’ group perform and live in city after city. It’s already happened anywhere, including in my country. Since they’re still a traditional show they should compete with the modern one. But for the olders they still gain respect and applause wherever they perform.

  31. Wayne Lim
    December 2, 2013

    it’s wonderful and an enriching experience to see how people of other cultures live their lives with what they have. it’s through such work that we learn to treasure what we have. well done and keep it going.

  32. paulo
    December 2, 2013

    great story!!

  33. arju
    December 2, 2013

    Nice experience

  34. Vidyadhar Navale
    December 2, 2013

    I am reading it on my mobile but can only see a small stamp size pictures. It would be much better if national geographic would allow just a few full screen pictures but I guess you need to subscribe for that.

  35. nyuyki keafon
    December 2, 2013

    nice

  36. Pattie Hillenberg
    December 2, 2013

    Love this story & pics….shows real life behind the scenes…most of us don’t even think about…..like the life of our truckers….time on the roads…missing out on major events in their childrens lives etc…a lot of things we all just take for granted …..many other professions as similar..ie. doctors …nurses…etc

  37. mohamad
    December 2, 2013

    nice

  38. Rich Davidson
    December 2, 2013

    Young artistic photo adventurers see our changing planet in new ways!

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