There is a large contingency of photographers with a tendency to hide behind their lens, behind everything they do really. Hardly does what you “do” create the total sum of you, but while so many photographers are remarkably guarded, they are also observers of the world, capturing it in full naked detail, and in the process laying everything they are on the table through their vision, if only for people who know how to read the cards. I am one of those. I tend toward quiet, snapping away, documenting for posterity observations from my few solar revolutions.
Occasionally however, I am awarded the great gift of being invited to shoot a subject which becomes an ingratiated part of my being or feels as though it always were, something which stitches a new seam in the fabric of my “self” or shines light on another unknown hidden beneath the layers. And sometimes, and this is very rare, I am invited to shoot a subject which pulls me completely out of my shell coated nature and flows mutually, encompassing. Over the last week, I have been so lucky as to have shot exactly such a subject, and atop all that to have developed quit a crush to boot.
His name is Francis. He is handsome and strong, not the least bit shy, a natural born performer with beautiful eyes. Also, he’s a lion.
He is not, however, just any lion. He is not a pet, not a cruelly chained wild beast, not an oddity attraction. As his partner puts it, he is a reincarnated vaudevillian. He lives to be cheered and perform, he thrives on the love of his fellow performers and the crowd, and picturing him in the wild is on par with picturing a fish riding a bicycle. Even his “trainer” cannot accurately be described as such; working partner and best friend are much more accurate. Francis, not his human, has written their entire act through a series of behaviors he’s realized attract the most cheers and faithfully reenacts in his need to shine. Even my camera and undivided concentration caught his need for attention so much so that he quite literally would find me and pose, eyes locked on the lens and stance set for ideal shots.
Although the great dream of mine to have a career with the circus burned out years ago, its altered rebirth came in the form of a desire to document the circus in photos. As with most dreams coming to fruition, when the bright and lovely morning came to shoot this year’s opening show of the Culpepper-Merriweather Circus, my nerves were positively racked. I found myself making circles through the house, blindly trying to remember something, whatever I’d forgotten, my nerves. (In my anxious hurry I did forget two very important things, but that is beside the point.)
But pulling into the tiny town of Bokchito and seeing the flags waving at the peak of the big top, my heart swelled. From there I was warmly received by what can only be described as the kindest people I have had the honor of meeting in as long as I can remember. Everyone was excitedly bustling about, making all the last minute preparations before the opening, checking and rechecking all their plans. And yet, somewhere in the midst of their hustle and my nerves, they managed to yank me out of my usually reticent nature and self-deprecating perfectionist mindset with their familial gregariousness and into a place where I felt completely at home.
After having found in their group such a comfort zone, the second shoot was more relaxed and jovial, and I could hardly sleep the night before for excitement at seeing everyone again. By then everyone, man and beast, was settled into their routines, and when I arrived the camp lay sleepy under cold midday sunlight. Mechanical failure the night before had put all hands on deck for the tearing down of the big top, time consuming and freezing cold, so everyone rested before the evening show.
In spite of the exhaustion from the night before, Simone’s effervescence was hardly slowed and we chatted away like old friends, she filling me with insight into their world of finding their old fashioned style one ring one tent circus’ place in the modern day, of fretting over their beloved animal performers like children, of the day to day that builds their special brand of magic.
And special is their magic which guards the old traditions from fading, which enraptures otherwise electronics blinded children of all ages with juggling, high wire, and trapeze, which steals sad eyed adults from reality if only for a couple of hours into a succession of marveling “ohs” and “ahs” at the handsome beasts and beautiful performers and frightful gasps at the heart clenching stunts done too high in the air for comfort.
Like a happy dream from which one never wants to wake, I found myself, the anti-crier, welled up with emotion each time at having to leave for the evening, trying to think of some reason why I might need to stay while repeating to myself all the reasons I cannot run away with the circus.
Follow the Culpepper-Merriweather schedule here.