Photograph by Emily Ainsworth
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The dancing girls in Circo Vazquez wait for their cue. Mexico City.
Photograph by Emily Ainsworth

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

NG Live!: Emily Ainsworth: Inside a Mexican Circus