THE EVERYDAY LIFE OF A NOMADIC CIRCUS | by Szabolcs Ivan
The Eötvös Circus’ story is a real life fairy tale. Many generations ago, in 1894 the Winiczky family, a Czech circus dynasty travelled to Hungary with their show. Ferencz Eötvös, a Hungarian Baron, visited the show and was captivated by Johanna, a young and beautiful acrobat. It was love at first sight. Ferencz however, was the only offspring of the noble family and against his parents’ wishes; he married Johanna and escaped with the nomadic circus. Together they established the foundations of the successful Eötvös Circus that still tours today.
Mystery and the romance of nomadic circuses has always captured my imagination and I decided to research about this subject in detail, resulting in this photography project. I wanted to get an insight into this unusual nomadic circus lifestyle. My goal was to document the show, focusing on the fascinating behind-the-scenes events and relationships.
After a couple of emails I was fortunate to be granted permission to capture the circus life. I soon found myself in a concrete car park of a large industrial shopping unit in Hungary, face to face with a camel, and photographing animals in the most surreal surroundings.
The circus crew showed me around and explained the layout. The enormous big top was placed in the centre of the site, secured with ropes and pegs which pierced the concrete of the car park, the trucks and mobile homes surrounding it within close proximity. Soon after I introduced myself to the Eötvös family and the remainder of the crew, the show began.
I photographed the performance first and then it was time to capture the scenes backstage. It can be challenging to photograph in a low light environment. I had to use whatever light I could find: natural sunlight when the performers flipped up a panel of the tent, or a random sweep from a colourful ray of lights that seeped in from the show.
Backstage was hectic: performers running around in their quirky costumes, props and stage sets everywhere, clowns doing their make-up, acrobats stretching and warming up, a stolen kiss in a dark corner between two jugglers, not to mention the unusual menagerie of passing armadillos, geese, pelicans, tigers and pigs no less!
I found a small hole from backstage through the curtains that I could photograph from, so I managed to capture the show from a different perspective. Later on I learnt, from a performer, the special technique how to peek through the curtains so that the audience doesn’t spot you, an ideal way to stick my lens through the curtains, to get the images that I wanted. I was lucky enough to have two opportunities to document backstage life, I was prepared the second time and knew what to expect, so I could focus my attention on the aspects of the show that I wanted to document.
It is unavoidable to talk about a traditional circus and not mention the controversial issue of animals being used in the production. Animal experts often say that circus animals have a better quality of life in the circus than if they were in a zoo, and that they are loved and more appreciated than other animals living in captivity. All the animals in the zoos are regularly checked by the authorities for levels of stress and health.
On the other hand, we could rightly ask if these animals should really live in captivity and if they should be paraded around in costumes, dance and jump around in the spotlight to entertain the audience. The classic circuses have a lot of pressure on them from activists and animal rights protesters. There have even been occasions in this circus’ life where the lions were freed from their cages by activists and then had to be rounded up from the middle of an urban area, after roaming the streets!
This particular circus has thirty-eight trucks and employs seventy members of staff, all of whom work extremely hard on a daily basis, specifically assigned to their individual roles. The travelling never stops: being on the road and the circus is their life. It is a life they are born into and relationships are usually formed from within the nomadic circus’ circle. A private teacher also travels as part of the troupe ensuring that the children are getting the education that they need.
By photographing and learning more about this subject I was expecting that the mystery of the circus would slowly vanish, however the opposite happened. When I saw their way of life, the constant travel, the show, backstage and even their every day struggle to survive in today’s difficult economical climate, this all added to the magical and romantic image I hold of a nomadic circus.