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.

“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.

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.