“I wanted to mythologise them”: Tom Ringsby captures a band of fire breathing acrobats

In Men on Fire, the London-based photographer focuses on calmer moments between the action, away from the eyes of an audience.

5 September 2023

Sometimes a chance encounter can result in the most successful and fruitful creative relationships. When the photographer Tom Ringsby was teaching documentary filmmaking at a creative summer school in the Jamestown neighbourhood of Accra, Ghana, he met Prince Aryee. An “amazing kid”, as Tom describes him, from the off it was clear that Prince was a performer, and could always be found doing flips and one-armed handstands. After getting along so well the pair stayed in touch when Tom left, and Prince kept him informed as he grew up and found his place in a group of fellow performers.

Continually updating Tom on the “mad skills” that he and his group were learning, he urged the photographer and filmmaker to come and make a project with them. “After covid I finally took him up on it and ended up spending three weeks over there immersing myself in their artistry and community,” Tom says. “They invited me in like a brother and it was an incredible experience all round.”


Tom Ringsby: Men on Fire (Copyright © Tom Ringsby, 2023)

While “performers” may be the most appropriate description of the group, summarising what they do isn’t a simple task because of the sheer breadth of their talents. From fire-breathing and acrobatics, to dance, clowning, juggling, contortion and drumming, their talents are many, and they can often be found performing at all sorts of events and spaces, from cruise ships, hotels, festivals and carnivals, circuses, birthday parties. To capture the gasp-inducing energy, action and magic of their live performances, when with the band Tom created a documentary – Dragon Boys. But for the adjoining photographic element Men on Fire, he wanted to create contrast, instead lensing in on “the calmer moments between the action” away from the audiences, using “considered portraiture” to capture the essence of each member.

While Accra is “a very busy place”, Tom explains that the group had their secret spots, calm places to get away from the bustling city, practice and hang out. “It definitely helped that when the sun is rising or setting on Ghana, there’s nowhere more beautiful,” Tom adds. With such enigmatic figures and a landscape to match, Tom had clear intentions; “I wanted to mythologise them and portray the sense of heroism and mystery they inspire in the local kids.”

The image that fulfils this goal in its entirety is one of Prince on a horse, fire stick in hand, the onset of dusk enveloping the beach he rides down. With Prince turned to the camera with a calm authority and the low light giving the shot a hazy, dream-like quality, the scene has a breathtaking grandeur about it. But alongside such grandeur the quieter, more simple shots also resonate with Tom. In one group shot at the training-ground-cum-club-house, the camera centres on the face of Emmanuel, his face cocked to the side slightly in an offhand manner. While in their performance wear and body paint, this in between moments exudes calm and a comfortable kinship. “They’re all such professionals, they’re always pulling amazing poses and looking like superheroes,” Tom says, “but this was a more relaxed moment.”

As well as hoping that his documentary and photo series may help the group get more gigs, exposure, and a chance to share their skills far and wide, Tom also hopes that they will bring more attention to the unique culture and heritage of Ghana. “It’s definitely stepped further into the international consciousness and I hope that continues,” he says. “If this inspires someone to read up on what’s happening in Ghana these days or even visit there, that’s a pretty good result.”

GalleryTom Ringsby: Men on Fire (Copyright © Tom Ringsby, 2023)

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Tom Ringsby: Men on Fire (Copyright © Tom Ringsby, 2023)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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