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Work / Photography

Alice Zoo documents the real day-to-day lives of performers in a travelling circus

While on a solo trip through the Argentinian Lake District photographer Alice Zoo chanced across a travelling circus setting up its stage. Both Alice and the performers seemed to have arrived in town at the same time, as the photographer spotted them putting together a Big Top tent as she walked back to her accommodation one night.

One evening she decided to take a look. Heading inside, away “from the sun and the heat was surreal,” Alice tells It’s Nice That. “The sudden sound insulation was like the feeling of holding a shell over your ear and hearing the sea.” Beyond its acoustics, the darkened canopy of the tent was an overwhelming sight too; “punctured with tiny holes and light poured in from each one,” she describes. “It was magical, spectral. I decided I had to photograph there, so when I left the tent I found a passing member of the circus to ask and they told me to come back later, directing me to the doyenne who didn’t seem to mind me being there for a few days.”

From this point, Alice began to slowly build friendships with those she met as part of Circo Giatthoni and, in turn, photographed. “I spent time with them in the way that they were used to filling their days before a show,” she says. “In the daytime, there wasn’t much for them to do so we’d chat and eat bread and jam, I’d listen to a fire breather play the guitar, or watch a clown practice backflips.”

What the photographer then uncovered was that her subjects, despite their similarity in age to herself, were leading polar opposite lives. “I told them about my trip to Argentina, my photographing, showed them how my camera works, and they told me about where they learned aerial silk dancing, what life’s like on the road with a show and so on.” This exchange in backgrounds set the photographer up in a position where taking her photographs was relaxed and open. “Sometimes I’d go into their caravans and take pictures, drink mate [a traditional South American caffeine-rich drink], listen to the radio while they painted their faces.” From the sounds of it, Alice didn’t rush the process one bit and, as a result, wasn’t rushed to leave the environment after a few quick snaps either.

Consequently, the series doesn’t portray the spectacle element of circus performers or the travelling lifestyle, but more the logistics of it. Alice shoots the ropes that make-up their performing home, camp beds and stages in waiting. “I was really just chasing that first impression I’d had of the tent swallowing me when I first stepped inside it, feeling enveloped by a muffled galaxy filled with huge old machinery and glittering with inadvertent stars.”

Working towards her goal of creating a series that would “give a sense of anticipation of the act to come,” Alice’s final series has hit the nail on the head. It avoids “some of the clichés associated with such a well-worn subject as circus photography,” and instead hones in on “the people themselves and their environment, rather than sensationalise about their abilities, or romanticise their lifestyle.”

It was on her last evening in town that Alice finally headed to see the actual show, sharing popcorn “with the child who’d elected to look after me for the evening,” she tells us. “It was striking to see the young people I’d met transform into these commanding, precise, dynamic performers.”

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