An Inside Look at the Unique Lives of Circus Performers

A photographer explores the culture of circuses and the communities they build.

Twenty-three-year-old Johanna-Maria Fritz has been photographing the circus since she was 17. First, in her native Germany, then Iceland, next the Middle East. More attracted to the familial communities that circuses create than the public performances, her work looks at the troupes’ relationships to their surroundings, inside and outside the big top.

Paula, a young contortionist, poses on a mountain full of fishing nets. Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, 2015.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Jóakim Meyvant Kvaran and Bjarni Árnason wait for their show. Ísafjörður, Iceland, 2014.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ 

Þórdís Schram is working as a dancer and trapeze artist in the first and only Icelandic circus, Fritz says. Keflavik, Iceland, 2014.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Lee Nelson is the director of Sirkus Islands. As an Austrailian, Fritz says, Nelson needed money to live and support his existence in the sparsely populated country of Iceland. 12 years ago he started the circus by giving handstand courses. Fáskrúðsfjörður, Iceland, 2015
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Nadia, a dancer, poses late one summer night after the "adult show." Ísafjörður, Iceland, 2014.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Margrét Erla Maack, a 33-year-old artist and performer, stands next to her reflection. Reykjavik, Iceland, 2014.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Kári Svan Rafnsson's skills include being fluent in many languages, ball juggling, riding the cyr wheel, and balloon twisting. Myvatn, Iceland, 2015.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

“The beginning of everything,” says Fritz, was photographing a small circus in eastern Germany called Zirkus Rolandos. It’s closed now, and Fritz keeps this early student work tucked away in a private portfolio. With a craving to immerse herself in another circus community, in early 2014 Fritz swiftly boarded a plane to Iceland the day after a friend living there called to tell her about a new circus on the island. They were building a tent in the shape of Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes.

Abdallah and his father work as circus riders. They have a farm outside the city and give free shows on the beach. Gaza City, Palestinian territories, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

All the children in the MMCC circus are responsible for sewing their own costumes. Brush Akbari is the stitching tutor. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2016.
PHOTOGRPAH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Alexander Omar is an artist from a circus family in Colombia. He used to work for an Iranian circus for several seasons, Fritz says, but as a foreigner it was difficult for him. Qazvin, Iran, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ 

Besan is a 21-year-old clown who works in hospitals to entertain sick children. Gaza City, Palestinian territories, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ 

The Mobile Mini-Circus for Children (MMCC) girls' team juggle right before a show in a park. It is important for the girls to perform in front of a male audience, Fritz says, as it gives them a sense of power that they usually lack in their daily lives. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ 

Mohamed is one of the circus students at the MMCC circus in Kabul. The school holds trainings in different villages all over Afghanistan. They work in small teams out of a so-called "funtainer," a colorfully-painted shipping container. Qali Qazi, Afghanistan, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Mohammed al-Sheikh, a 13-year-old, is a contortionist. He became famous, Fritz says, when he participated in the “Arab Got Talent” show in Lebanon in 2015. Here he poses on top of a tree at a mountain near the neighborhood of Shejaeya. Gaza City, Palestinian territories, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Suria is one of the female students in this circus school in Kabul. She spends her time teaching younger girls. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ 

Mohammad Nasser Abu, a 26-year-old, is performing his Chinese pole routine. He joined the circus school when he was 17 and at the age of 20 he started to work as a trainer. Jericho, Palestinian territories, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Yogi comes from a Colombian circus family and is working as a contortionist and a clown. Tehran, Iran, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

The MMCC is training kids every day in almost all the refugee camps in Kabul, Fritz says. The boys team poses for the photo during training in one of the camps. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

Documenting Sirkus Islands, Iceland’s first and only circus, Fritz recognized that many who joined were seeking an “alternative life plan outside the materialist world, and would generate a new form of family within the collective.” Founded approximately ten years ago by an Australian named Lee Nelson, the circus has grown to include Nelson’s Icelandic wife, their children, plus the extended Sirkus Islands kin. The troupe performs across Iceland, traveling by bus and sleeping in schools to save money.

Making several trips in 2014 and 2015, Fritz toured with the troupe, sleeping alongside them in the classrooms. She did make one amendment after her first year with Sirkus Islands: she decided to get a driver’s license for the explicit purpose of following the tour in her car instead of riding the bus. “I wanted to be free to drive around for photos,” says Fritz. Her car would almost always fill up with circus folk and they would take the time to stop and shoot portraits in the theatrical landscapes between cities.

An image of a man on stilts, standing supernaturally at the edge of a smoky volcanic lake called Mývatn, was made after a three-hour detour. His blue stilts mimic the sky, his white pants the clouds, and his shirt, hat and lips splash red in the center of the square frame. “It’s a really, really emotional and private thing” says Fritz of making portraits, emphasizing that a connection between her and the person she’s photographing is paramount to her work.

In Palestine, Iran, and Afghanistan, which Fritz visited throughout 2014 and 2016, she wished to tell stories that the media was leaving out. “Always, when I tell someone that I’ve been to the circus in Palestine, the response is, they have a circus there?” Fritz recounts with hints of sadness and incredulity.

“I was especially curious about the role of women in circus life and the environment the circus is based in,” she says. Young women and girls are allowed to join the circus in Palestine, but male instructors are obliged to teach acrobatics without touching them. They’re extremely proud of the solutions they’ve developed, says Fritz of the way the performers work around the restriction.

Circuses are able to function in these conservative or conflict-ridden countries, says Fritz, with a lot of perseverance. She found people working together that are from communities usually considered at odds: Iranians and Kurds in Iran, Hazara and Pashtun people in Afghanistan, for example. Fritz says that the circus was also used as a lesson in democracy for the children, “how to decide something all together.”

Some troupe members see it as their only small chance to travel beyond the borders of their hometown. Others use the circus to heal. One long-time performer in Palestine told Fritz about the time her mother called to tell her that two men had been shot in a demonstration, one was her brother, one was dead, but they didn’t know who. “Her brother lived and to help himself recover, rejoined his sister in the circus a few months later.”

In Afghanistan the reality of years of war and the escape that the circus can provide collided. While photographing a young juggler in the mountains five miles outside of Kabul, a man in the back of a pickup truck started yelling and pointing a gun at Fritz. The situation in Afghanistan is rough, she says, and “I think he was scared...if there’s someone pointing something at another person from your village, from far away, you never know what it is.”

Fritz acknowledges that the circus is inextricable from the world outside its shelter, and she believes it’s essential to “show beautiful things and beautiful stories.” To this day, it’s the sincerity and devotion of the circus community that is at the heart of Fritz’s work. “They take care of each other and if the smallest or youngest person is not there, the show can’t go on,” she says.

Header Image: Sindri Steinn Davíðsson Diego and Jón Sigurður Gunnarsson pose near the circus tent with a view of the Ernir mountain behind them. Ísafjörður, Iceland, 2014. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHANNA-MARIA FRITZ

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