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This Clown Takes You Behind the Scenes at the World’s Best Circuses

Lukas Berger discovers that the best way to photograph the circus is to join it

“Once the curtain opens, the show begins. The audience laughs, is amazed, some are beginning to cry. The emotions are noticeable. They are triggered by the gestures and movements of a man with a red nose, baggy trousers and a unique clumsiness.”

In 2010, while working for the Austrian civil service in Pakistan, Lukas Berger stumbled upon the traveling Lucky Irani Circus. An avid clown and juggler, he was completely enthralled. Lukas felt compelled to document circus life, but felt he lacked the photographic expertise to do it justice. He moved back to Hanover for three years to hone his skills at Hochschule Hannover’s Photojournalism & Documentary Program. Then in 2012 he returned to photograph and occasionally perform with three different circuses on three continents.

Yonas ShibeshiLukas Berger dressed as a clown at the Circus Debere Berhan in Ethiopia.

Pakistan: Lucky Irani Circus

“I slept in a different bed every day, the lions were roaring and one of the midget clowns was after me.”

All Lukas had to reconnect with the Pakistani circus was a single business card given to him by one of the acrobats. They did not have an active phone number or email address, and constantly traveled around the country. After weeks on their tail, including multiple 12-hour bus rides, he was finally able to catch up with them.

Lukas started off by tagging along. He didn’t have a place to sleep, often sleeping next to the monkey’s cage. The circus was a large-scale production, drawing crowds of up to 5,000 spectators and it was difficult for him to find his place. As he built trust with the circus, they allowed him to perform as a clown alongside two midgets, who performed a good cop–bad cop routine. In an initiation of sorts, the bad cop hit him over the head with a cricket stick during a performance hard enough to break it in half. After that incident he was allowed to travel with the circus.

Midget clowns Tareeq & Mohammed
Lukas BergerMidget clowns Tareeq & Mohammed

Germany: Circus Roncalli

“In the circus area there is a café, a caravan for teaching the children, an office caravan, horse stable, a ticket trolley, a workshop and stalls where you can buy popcorn and other goodies.”

Next, Lukas went to north Germany and traveled with the world-renowned Circus Roncalli for six months. This time, he lived in a small caravan of his own. The deal was that he could travel with the circus if he spent two days a week shooting images they could use for advertising and one day a week shooting for his project. The rest of the time, he trained with a few of Roncalli’s children and clowns. He also did odd jobs from selling tickets to working on the circus’s website. These duties, he said, were shared: “In a circus family, you do whatever is needed.”

He was impressed by the level of professionalism and the hierarchical structure of the circus. “Life there varies depending on contracts and level of fame. A minimum of six languages are spoken in this small circus town. Circus Roncalli is a great example of peaceful and friendly coexistence between different nationalities.”

Ethiopia: Circus Debere Berhan

“The troupe loves to perform on the streets of Ethiopian cities. Without great advertising and advance notice, half the city gathers around the performances. Shortly before the show, Yirgalem and Zakarias run on stilts through the streets to pick up as many people as possible. After the last act, young and old Ethiopians gather around the troupe and ask questions about the circus.”

After struggling to find a circus in Africa that would let him in, Lukas landed with Circus Debere Berhan. One of the few remaining circuses in the country, they perform near the capital, Addis Ababa, often walking between locations. Despite poor lighting and no heating or air-conditioning, Berger was impressed by the circus’s extreme discipline. “Despite all of these hardships, the circus manages not only to survive but to grow.” Most spectators don’t have the means to pay for tickets, as a result the circus is supported by NGOs and other European circuses. Lukas grew close to this circus, training its clowns and joining them for group meals. He loved their unique circus tradition of drinking their coffee with a side of popcorn.

Each time, Lukas was given the opportunity to stay on as a clown. Instead, he opted to move on, continuing his project elsewhere. Now he’s planning to approach a circus on another continent — his fourth — most likely in Chile.

Yirgalem Shemelis & Zekarias Kefyalew from Circus Debere Berhan
Lukas BergerYirgalem Shemelis & Zekarias Kefyalew from Circus Debere Berhan

Lukas Berger is a Hanover-based Austrian photographer. Circus was published as a book by Kettler. He is also the co-founder of the gallery–art space BOHAI.

Josh Raab is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Ringling Bros Circuses Drop Elephant Acts

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced Thursday it would eliminate its iconic elephant acts by 2018.

Watch today’s #KnowRightNow, and click here for more on this story.

TIME animals

The History Behind Ringling Bros.’s Elephant-Sized Decision

Barnum's Elephant
London Stereoscopic Company / Getty Images circa 1890: Jumbo, the famous elephant which belonged to US showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, at London Zoo in Regent's Park

This circus, which will no longer include elephant acts as of 2018, has a special relationship to the animals

After a few years of growing cultural unease with elephant captivity, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced on Thursday that their shows would, by 2018, no longer include elephant acts.

Other circuses have given up elephants before, and others will likely continue to incorporate them into shows — but it’s particularly significant that this one has decided to part with pachyderms.

After all, an elephant is why that circus exists in the first place.

As TIME explained in 1923 review of a biography of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the showman whose name is a key part of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey — the mouthful of an official title of the circus in question — started as a sideshow curator. He was middle-aged when he turned his natural salesmanship toward a circus, but it was Bailey, in fact, who had an elephant first:

Later, when a baby elephant, the first born in captivity, arrived in Bailey’s rival camp, Barnum offered $100,000 for the infant, a fact which Bailey so blatantly advertised that Barnum was forced to merge with his rival in self-defense.

Thus, in 1881, was born Barnum & Bailey — thanks to an elephant. It was only a year later that they acquired perhaps the most famous elephant in history, Jumbo, who had been born in Africa but was living in London when Barnum brought him stateside, further establishing the link between the circus and the animal. According to TIME, his first six weeks at Madison Square Garden in New York City earned Barnum & Bailey a whopping $336,000. (That’s about $7.5 million today, and yes, the word “jumbo” is an eponym.)

Barnum & Bailey merged with Ringling Bros. Circus in 1907 and the two circuses began doing combined shows about a decade later.

Read a 1952 profile of John Ringling North, here in the TIME archives: Personality

TIME Mexico

Mexican Government Votes to Ban Circus Animals

A tiger jumps through a ring of fire during a performance of the Fuentes Gasca Brothers Circus in Mexico City, June 22, 2014.
Sean Havey—AP A tiger jumps through a ring of fire during a performance of the Fuentes Gasca Brothers Circus in Mexico City, June 22, 2014.

Not certain yet whether President Enrique Peña Nieto will sign bill into law

The Mexican legislature has passed a bill to ban the use of animals in circus performances.

Mexico City has already passed a ban on using animals in the circus, along with six states. The legislature’s lower chamber voted Thursday to ban the use of animals, following an earlier vote by the Senate. The bill requires circuses to make a list of all their animals and make them available to zoos in case they want to take them. It also imposes fines for violation.

President Enrique Peña Nieto hasn’t said whether he’ll sign the bill into law.



TIME photography

LIFE at the Circus: Behind the Scenes With Ringling Brothers, 1949

Photographs chronicling the lives lived behind the scenes at the Ringling Brothers circus extravaganza in the late 1940s.

LIFE.com celebrates the legendary entertainment juggernaut that Charles Edward Ringling (Dec. 2, 1863 – Dec. 3, 1926) and several other Ringlings owned and operated through the years: the Ringling Brothers Circus (later the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the “Greatest Show on Earth”). Here are photographs by LIFE’s Nina Leen, chronicling the lives lived behind the scenes by the huge extended family that made up the traveling extravaganza in the late 1940s.

In fact, Charles Edward’s nephew, John Ringling North, was the larger-than-life focus of the LIFE feature for which these photos were originally made. (Very few of the photographs ran in the magazine.)

Of all the marvels, human and animal, which populate the Ringling Bros.’ circus [LIFE wrote], none can match John Ringling North, the man who runs it, in sheer, brassy flamboyance. It is the considered judgment of a large following of friends and enemies that the sustained private performance given by North, a former stock-and-bond salesman who hacked his way through a financial jungle to become president and majority stockholder of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc., is easily as spectacular as any that takes place under the Big Top of The Greatest Show on Earth.

The 1949 article goes on to portray a man of outsize appetites, remarkable talents (“He tap dances, plays the saxophone and cornet, juggles lighted torches and sings songs of his own composition. . .”) and boundless, near-manic energy who somehow was able to put his stamp on a massive pop-culture phenomenon while, if the article is to believed, he rarely slept, constantly boozed it up in his private Pullman train car and galloped around on a stallion named Stonewall’s Pride.

Under the Big Top or outside of it, they just don’t make ’em like that any more.


Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

TIME Fine Art

30 Years of Cirque du Soleil’s Best Photos

The best collection of photos from the "dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment" as the beloved act turns 30.

The “dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment” show turned 30 this week, after three decades of incredible acrobatic acts—and astonishing photos of them.

TIME The Brief

Hunt Continues for Lost Plane, Circus Catastrophe and NBA Playoffs

Welcome to #theBrief, the four stories to know about right now -- from the editors of TIME

Leading off today is the news, or lack thereof, on the missing Malaysian Airlines flight. The hunt continues as the search area widens. Then, the shocking cellphone footage of a circus accident that injured nine acrobats. In sports, the Clippers advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs despite the turmoil surrounding owner Donald Sterling after his racist remarks. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighs in on racism inside and out of sports. To beat the Mondays, we end with a joke, courtesy of President Barack Obama who let them have it at the White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday night. Here are the 17 meanest jokes from the annual event.

TIME Accidents

Circus Accident Caused by Snapped Clamp, Official Says

Authorities say a snapped clamp caused eight hanging acrobats to plunge during a "Legends" show of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus on Sunday, leaving three in critical condition. The accident was witnessed by an audience of thousands, many of them children

Authorities have determined a snapped clamp caused eight arial hair-hanging performers to plummet to the ground Sunday in a Rhode Island circus accident.

“We have identified a clamp that snapped that held them to the rafters, and it failed,” Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare told WPRO-AM. Three of the acrobats are still in critical condition, but none of the injuries appear to be life-threatening, the Associated Press reports.

“Unfortunately this particular clamp failed,” Pare said. “It snapped off. We have it, we’re analyzing it, we’re seeing why it happened to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future. That’s all part of our focus.” The performers fell 25 to 40 feet onto another dancer on the ground.

The act was part of the “Legends” show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, during which the performers hang “like a human chandelier” using their hair. The accident was witnessed by an audience of about 3,900 people, which included many children.


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