Today I was going through some old film and I came across circus photos from about 15 years ago. I was so happy to see these faces and relive the memories of my time under the big top. Before I had kids, I visited the circus quite a few times and went behind the scenes to see if I could capture some pictures of the performers. Little did I know I would get so much more out of  the experience than just some environmental portraits.

In the process I made friends with the owners and was invited to travel with them in the summer when they passed through Southern California. During the week I was a Creative Director in a big advertising agency, and on long weekends, I would pack my gear and cooler full of film and go stay on the circus grounds in an old RV. I felt so lucky waking up to the sights and sounds most people never get the chance to see when they visit. The animal handlers were up early feeding and bathing the elephants, dogs, ponies and hippos. The two giant elephants you see in the pictures, Ben and Lisa, would be staring in through the front window of our RV as we had breakfast. They are now retired in Florida. How cliché! Not far off were the sounds of tigers being fed, and around the corner was a clown reading a paper and another one ironing a shirt. It all seems so surreal now. I wish I could wake up there tomorrow and keep shooting.

One thing that surprised me was that the performers were up and in the tent really early rehearsing for the shows and coming up with new acts in hopes of getting cast for another year. They have the same career dreams and job insecurities as the rest of us. And they had the same hopes and dreams for their kids too. They may not have envisioned Ivy League schools and scholarships like so many parents today, but they did want what we all ultimately want, for our kids to be happy and healthy and find success in something they love to do. For most performers the circus was more than just a job, it was a family. Literally, it was made up of many generations and cousins all traveling together and taking care of one another. If you weren’t in the act you were supporting it or raising the next generation of tight rope walkers and acrobats. If you weren’t selling tickets or refreshments, you were sewing sequins on costumes or setting up a classroom in every town to teach the younger kids. Everyone, even the owner’s daughter, even the ringmaster, had multiple jobs behind the scenes and they relied on each other to get things done. It was a village in the true sense of the word. People often refer to crazy jobs as a “circus” but they have no idea. The actual circus is very well run and extremely efficient. Picking up and moving locations every three to four days. Everyone has a role, everyone chips in where needed and it actually ran a lot smoother than most agencies I’ve worked in.

Looking back at the photos I realize these are some of the first families and children I ever photographed. They came from places like Mexico, Italy and Russia to name just a few and although we didn’t always speak the same language, we managed to communicate just fine. Family relationships can be very complex but they can also be very simple. So beautifully simple. Capturing the feelings these families had for one another was addictive and kept me going back. I suppose, in some small way, it’s what lead me to where I am today. Often times, when people leave the circus they are said to get “itchy feet”, it’s a term which refers to one’s desire to return to circus life and the road after they’ve been away from the big top for awhile. I think maybe my feet started itching again, starting my family portrait business might just be my way of getting back to the haul. I can almost hear the calliope playing in the distance.

To see more images from the circus you can visit my portfolio site.

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