Hassocks, England-based photographer Jonathan Browning spent nine years living in the bustling metropolis of Shanghai, China, the most populous city in the world. Though he moved back to the UK two years ago, Jonathan still travels back to Shanghai frequently for work and family visits. After being away from the city for a while and returning with fresh eyes, Jonathan was intrigued by the acrobatic shows that are put on for foreign visitors.
During a month-long return trip to Shanghai, Jonathan decided that he wanted to document the experiences of the performers in these local acrobatic troupes, and take a closer look at an industry that largely relies on foreign tourists to keep it alive.
The majority of the performers in the acrobatic shows are children between 11-20 years of age, coming from poor families in rural areas. Performing in these shows is often viewed as an escape from their surroundings and gives them the opportunity to travel and see more of the world. They also earn a fair amount of money, but in exchange, they give up education and other opportunities not afforded by a life on the road.
The initial challenge was finding a theater that would grant access and permission to photograph the acrobats. After some initial legwork, Jonathan discovered a group willing to work with him, the Tai’an Circus, based out of the San Lin Expo Cultural Center of Pudong. Though some groups travel around, the Tai’an group is permanently based in the theatre, which gave Jonathan a lot more flexibility and options for shooting.
The Tai’an group was very nice about the shoot. All they wanted in return were some standard PR photos, which seemed like a fair swap to me.
Jonathan had an enjoyable time working with the acrobats and watching them perform. Their shows consist of balancing acts, dangerous stunts, body contortions, and other classic acrobatic endeavors. There were several moments during practice when he had to dodge a flying body swooping past him out of seemingly nowhere. He was particularly taken with the agility of the performers.
I would get uncomfortable while crouching for an extended period of time, but right next to me there would be a contortionist bending over completely backwards!
One of the challenges was capturing all of the action. Jonathan shot during rehearsals and practice times, so as not to interrupt public performances. There was always a flurry of action and movement all happening in the low-light of the indoor theater, which is not an ideal shooting situation by any stretch.
Finding a time to take portraits was another challenge. The performers only get into costume and makeup minutes before the performances happen. Jonathan had to work quickly to direct the subjects and take their portraits in the limited time before the curtain rose.
Over the course of five visits to the local theater, Jonathan was slowly able to focus on the different aspects of the production and capture all of the images he wanted. And he only left his gear backstage once:
I had to crawl along the back of the stage to retrieve my bag that I had accidentally left there. I think there was a dragon dance going on so hopefully eyes were focused on that and not on me!
Jonathan has a long-standing relationship with the Christian Science Monitor and they’ve featured his documentary work in the past. Once he returned home and appraised his images, he reached out to the publication about this new project. They ultimately decided to feature his images in a web gallery on their site, and in a March publication.
Thinking back, Jonathan would have liked to explore the lives of the performers further, and dive into issues like education and living conditions. This being his first trip, he was primarily interested in documenting the shows from a tourism and entertainment angle, both during performances and backstage. Jonathan hopes to continue shooting documentary photo stories as his travels take him across the world, and possibly revisit this series during his next trip!
Photographer: Jonathan Browning