Danish Circus in Martin Dam Kristensen’s Project
Born in Kraghede (Denmark). Dreamt of becoming a ‘rock photographer’ — the one who shoots stars and has a free pass to their performances. Studied at the Danish School of Journalism, worked as a photojournalist, received several Music Photographer of the Year awards. Later on got tired of music photography and switched to street photography. Spent the last five years on a project about the life of traveling circus Dannebrog.
I remember the first time I met them. It was morning. On my way to school I saw a group of people with huge hammers, pounding heavy pieces of metal into the earth. They were talking to each other in Polish as they were raising a tent. It sounded like music, and it looked like a dance. I was little, but I realized that a tent meant a circus, and a circus meant wonders.
That day I first saw a show by Dannebrog — a legendary Danish traveling circus — and fell in love with it forever. I was amazed by the fact that everything is moved from one city to another almost every day. Impressed by the team work in an environment where only few understand each other because of the different languages spoken. I wondered how the tent makes people selling tickets almost as magical as knife throwers, and cleaners as trapeze artists.
I started going for their performances every year. The life of the traveling circus seemed ultimately free and romantic to me, and I dreamt of it. When in 1996 I entered the Danish School of Journalism and received an assignment to make my first photo report, I immediately knew my theme.
I like how in the circus nothing changes. Dannebrog was founded by the Enoch family at the end of the 19th century: it was a popular circus that traveled all over Europe, but then in 1928, it closed for some mysterious reason. Only after 50 years, in 1977, Haddy Enoch, the great-grandson of the original founder and a bicycle artist, started up the circus again. In case you didn’t know, when it comes to the circus, family always takes over. That’s why when Haddy died in 2009, his children started running the place, and his wife Solveig still travels along.
From the outside the circus world seems exotic and romantic: traveling, working together, seeing happy faces, taking care of horses and camels. And it certainly is a lifestyle for most people working in Dannebrog, but on a daily basis it’s about getting things done, fixing problems, selling popcorn and getting up early in the morning.
Circus people have a very strict schedule, as they only have a day in one city. Every day is like the one before, only in a new place, and they have 24 hours for everything.
Usually the caravan of trucks starts moving to the next city at five o’clock in the morning. By noon, the tent is ready and the artists start rehearsing. In the afternoon, there’s a chance to get some extra sleep, after that the preparation for the show starts. The show begins at seven, after that there’s dinner, the tent is taken down, everybody gets some sleep, and then is on the road again at five o’clock the next day. This is every one of their days between early spring and late autumn. The exceptions only happen in bad weather, or if there is demand for more than one show in the city. This season, for instance, they managed to perform in more than 100 places.
The group of Poles, who were working when I first met Dannebrog, were recently replaced by Ukrainians. To be honest, this must have happened because they are a cheaper labor force and ask less for their hard work. Ukrainians are known to be steady, reliable and hard-working, and they still work for a penny. They raise and take down the tent, sell souvenirs and tickets, help the artists, and clean. Some of the Ukrainians play in the circus band.
The brightest of them is Veronika, a young girl who had her first performance as a trapeze artist this year. Her parents Vadim and Inga have been working with the circus for years, and always took her along, so she learnt some wonders herself. Veronika is away from school half the year, she has a big job to catch up with homework when she’s in Ukraine for the winter time. She says that studies distract her from constantly thinking about going back to Dannebrog.
New artists are found during the winter. A part of the family travels around the world to find trapeze artists, actors, people with peculiar talents and to make arrangements, trying to hire the best of the best. It somehow always happens that people who represent the most important parts of the show are part of the family. I don’t exactly know how this process works. The man with the elephant and camels is married to one of Haddy’s daughters, and a talented Moroccan acrobat named Abdel Aziz is as well.
The family invited him to perform with them in 2010, he fell in love and got married, they had a son, and he never left.
In general, German is most widespread among the Dannebrog people. Some artists speak English, some Italian, and others use Spanish, Ukrainian or Russian. But a ‘common language’ does not always mean commonly used words. The circus life is simple, and every one of them is a professional in what they do. So often verbal communication is not that important for mutual understanding.
My favorite artist is Ramboline the elephant, she is 33 years old now. The guy taking care of her is Bernhard, and he has been with her since she was three months old. It’s a very beautiful relationship — like an old couple. They often take a walk together to show that the circus is in town. Usually he walks some steps in front and the elephant follows. The local supermarkets treat her with fruit or bread. This advertises both Ramboline and the circus and the supermarket.
One day I asked Bernhard to take a picture of them together. He told Ramboline to lay down and tried to hug her giant head. She closed her eyes in pleasure, and put her trunk to his elbow. She knew this way he’d be more comfortable.
At first, I didn’t define a specific photo project. I just enjoyed being among acrobats, princesses, workers and animals, visiting a number of small Danish cities and meeting people. I could do it all with my camera. While taking photographs, I spent more than one week in a fairy-tale, capturing the active circus life. And only later I realized that no matter how much I wanted it, I could never become one of them.
A circus doesn’t need a full-time photographer, and traveling along is hard and inconvenient.
The artists travel in their own cars and own campers, and sometimes friends of the circus family also travel along the same way as a sort of holiday. There is too little personal space, so they keep only the most necessary things. They don’t clutter space, they don’t store things or spend time on accidental people. They surround themselves only with what they really love.
This year I wanted to not only spend several days with the artists as I usually do, but I went to see the last show of the season. Not so much to see the show, as it is hardly different from other shows, but to experience the relief after six months’ work. But I was surprised there was no big party.
Most of the artists and workers missed their families and hurried to go back to them. Some already had contracts to work elsewhere in winter, so they wanted to spend as much time home as they could. I saw a few tears — and I saw a clown walking into the darkness of the night with his old suitcase.