When I started making these pictures, I thought I was photographing a circus. It was only after the first year I found that the circus is not just a circus, it’s also a government department. And government departments in Egypt work somewhat differently than government departments in Europe, where I grew up. So I sort of forgot about midgets and other things photographers love to photograph and got excited about old posters, used tickets, paperwork and family trees. Almost everyone at the circus is related. And it goes back generations. And in getting into these things, I got to wonder about how Egypt came to be the way it is. And this is a really complicated thing to talk about. So I won’t. But maybe the photographs will give an idea of some of the questions I had in my head.
In the lighting booth (with new lights) before a show, Cairo state circus, 2009."Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the people have abdicated our duties; for the people who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions, everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses." -Juvenal, Roman poet, circa AD 100.
Hamada Kouta, 24, and Richard the lion, shooting a TV commercial for a Saudi mobile telephone company, the state circus, Cairo, 2009.
Ahmed's balancing act, onstage at last in Assiut, 2010, about three years after he began practicing it. Every month, the circus changes its lineup.He went to Lebanon in 2012 to appear on "Arabs Got Talent," but things didn't go so well. Next stop is a circus festival in Scandinavia.
A picture I took of Hamada, next to a picture of his father, outside the circus in Cairo, 2009. It was a surprise to see my photo blown up so big.
Hamada Kouta supervises the feeding of his lions outside Cairo, 2008. Hamada now lives and works in Russia, with no plans to return to Egypt.
A lion eats from 7-10 kilograms of meat per day, usually donkey meat.
Anosa Kouta, Hamada's little sister, Hurghada private circus, 2010. She's never had a contract at the state circus, unlike her father and brother. She works at a private circus in Marina now. She's the only performer I know of who has a makeup artist and stylist.
Police in Assiut, 2010. The governor had requested that the circus come visit, and set aside an empty plot of land for it.
The balloon business, Assiut, 2010. Walid earns extra money, and the jealousy of some other performers, by selling balloons at the occasional show. Government salaries are so low, about LE500 a month, that everyone does something on the side — kids' parties, advertisements, weddings — whatever it takes.
State circus payroll paperwork, Gamasa, 2011.Under the Mubarak regime, the culture minister, Farouk Hosni, never visited his circus, despite it being the biggest earning department. For years, the circus has hoped for a more activist minister to improve working conditions.
Before the revolution, there was a portrait of Mubarak in the musicians' pit. The musician who showed me the picture works with four musicians. His father worked with 40 at the circus in the old days.This photo was taken in Cairo during the strike of 2009.
Bazaq the clown preparing at the state circus in Gamasa, 2007.
Gamasa, 2008. The boys get their own apartment for the summer, and the chance to try new acts.
Gamasa circus audience, summer 2011. I came to love the sea breeze and the feeling of freedom you get outside Cairo.
Left: Walid Yassin of the Yassin Brothers at the Townhouse Gallery in 2011, preparing for an exhibition opening. His brothers Khaled and Mohamed threw knives at the curators. Walid had missed a year of trick cycling due to a knee injury. “Anyone can be a clown, but not like someone who loves it,” says Walid.Right: Mohamed Ali al-Helo, Hamada Kouta's grandfather, who had a private circus in Alexandria before the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the national circus. This poster was in Hamada's dressing room in Cairo.
Tall man and police, outside the Cairo state circus, 2012. After the revolution, there was some worry that the circus would be targeted by protesters. So far, it hasn't.
Hany Ishaq at Gamasa state circus, 2007. Hany now works at a circus in Italy. Most summers, the Cairo circus closes and performers work at temporary public and private circuses in various coastal towns.
Father and son, Assiut, 2010."The whole world is a circus, we are a small circus within it," Abu Leila, the Russian-trained circus director, once said.
Khaled Yassin and his big brother Ahmed backstage, Cairo, 2007. They are both officially part of the Yassin Brothers trick-cycling troupe. Both have been working on other skills.
Ahmed Yassin practicing at the private circus in Alexandria, 2009. In 2011, he won a scholarship to go to China to study at circus school.The last performers to study overseas were during the Sadat era.