Emily Ainsworth

Anthropologist and Photographer

Young Explorer Grantee

Photo: Emily Ainsworth

Photograph by Andre Camara  

Birthplace: Oxford, England

Current City: London, England

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

The standard: a mermaid or a sweetshop owner. When I was four, I wanted to be a trapeze artist—I was in awe of the glamour and exhibitionism and the scandal of the fact that it was possible to get away with wearing nothing more than a few strategically placed sequins to work.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I started taking photographs because it seemed like the best excuse for being antisocially curious, and trained as an anthropologist for the same reason. I wanted to travel; England is a small country, and I saved up for years, scrubbing out toilets, and nit-combing dozens of village children so that I could afford to fly abroad.

I am fascinated in how the world, viewed through the lens of different cultures, becomes prismatic. My work as a documentary photographer and anthropologist has been driven by a desire to understand and depict how radically disparate populations make sense of their realities. This interest has taken me along the Ganges, documenting spiritual life. It led me through the Beijing's ancient Hutong maze, mapping the twists of its alleys weeks before it was demolished under the Olympic plan, and later, from East to West across Mongolia, investigating nomadic politics.

I went on my first expedition to Mexico when I was 16 and was caught by the drama and vibrancy, the violent celebration of everyday life. I have returned, and returned again ever since. I documented the Days of the Dead, pilgrimage routes and village fiestas, and at first, the idea of joining a circus was just to delay the inevitable flight home, but I fell in love with the magic and masquerade of the lifestyle and it has been my second home ever since.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

On my first day in the circus (I was recording a BBC radio documentary at the time) I was asked if I wanted an act as a dancer. Within five minutes, I was knotted into a corset, painted with a false blush, and pushed into the ring lights as "Princess Aurora." Hilariously, it was like a childhood dream come true. I was given a trailer of my own, and upgraded from sleeping in the back of a lorry, and every night, I lined up alongside the other dancers, to kiss rows of popcorn-sticky toddlers from the audience. It was such a privilege to get to feel like I belonged as, in Mexico, the circus community exists at a tangent from mainstream society and many artists perform under the birthright of having seven generations of circus blood pulsing through their veins. I have never taken for granted the fact that I was allowed such a level of insight, as an outsider.

The biggest challenge I have to face when working in the field is saying goodbye—I find it impossible to do without going through boxes of tissues. It's the reason why I've gone back to the circus so many times over the past few years, and why I hope I can still feel like it's my home when I'm pushing 70.

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—Emily Ainsworth

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