This story appears in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Circuses are spectacles that enchant an audience. But for me the real magic happens behind the scenes. The daily life I witnessed backstage at two Vietnamese circuses—before, during, and after performances—was a captivating parallel to the performers’ onstage personas.
During three trips from 2009 to 2012, I spent eight months in Vietnam. When I saw a circus in Hanoi, I was fascinated by its glamour. But as I got to know the performers personally, I felt compelled to show another aspect—to dignify their work and document their dedication.
Gaining intimate access wasn’t easy: Circus artists prefer that people focus on their feats, not their lives. To win their confidence I had to go slowly. On my last trip I lived as they did then, taking up residence for four months in an abandoned theater in Hanoi, where the performers had to build their own rooms out of wood and plastic.
My approach worked. When I showed a sincere interest in my subjects and tried to present their situation as honestly as I could, they invited me into their lives. Once they’d accepted me, I was simply there among them, taking pictures and sharing life each day. This is what it looked like.