Glimpse the lives behind the magic of Europe’s family circuses

A photographer goes on the road with traveling circus troupes—storytellers, tricksters, and acrobats who fill the modern big top with timeless charm. 

As the daughter of two flight attendants who took her on work trips to far-flung places—Singapore, Venezuela, Australia, India—photographer Stephanie Gengotti was used to a life on the go. So when she began following family circus troupes through Europe six years ago, the experience seemed familiar to her. “I feel very similar to these people because I also come from a family of travelers,” Gengotti says. “I connected to them. It reminded me of who I was.”

The troupes she tracks come from the nouveau cirque school, in which trained humans, not trained animals, are the stars of the show. While the circuses might include a few laying hens or horses that pull their caravans, most scenes are performed by artists who lead audiences through a story arc via theater, music, dance, and acrobatics. 

When Gengotti embeds with a circus—whether it’s a mom-and-pop troupe with barely a web presence, or a Broadway-caliber operation with dozens of performers—she likes to take her time. Before Gengotti begins photographing, she observes and settles into the rhythms of life on the road. Then when she does pull out her camera, she focuses her lens more on the work, play, and family dynamics that occur offstage than on the action under the big top. 

“The show is something that everyone can see,” Gengotti says. “What is behind the show, very few people have the privilege to see.”

Like her parents, Gengotti has started to bring her young child along for the ride. But even when she’s back home in Rome, her time with circuses has inspired her to live in ways that are “more linked to the natural cycle of life,” she says. “For example, I got a piece of land and started farming. I started to do more things that bring me into the no-time dimension of the circus.”

These Giffords Circus performers improvising a routine are husband-and-wife pairs, and the husbands are brothers. Family is a recurring theme in Gengotti’s series—sometimes biological family, sometimes a “family of friends.”
These Giffords Circus performers improvising a routine are husband-and-wife pairs, and the husbands are brothers. Family is a recurring theme in Gengotti’s series—sometimes biological family, sometimes a “family of friends.”
This story appears in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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