The ragged glory of Russia's forgotten circus culture

The ragged glory of Russia's forgotten circus culture
Like a bear on a wire — Photographer Reiner Riedler uncovers the enduring charm of a once-renowned cultural force, opening himself up to the power of exploration along the way.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, one of Russia’s proudest cultural symbols – its State circus – fell by the wayside.

Artists and acrobats migrated to the West in search of better opportunities.

Hustlers copied the names of prestigious circus acts, attracting diminishing crowds to poor imitations.

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As the country struggled through economic crisis, the State circus barely had enough money to keep its animals fed.

This is the landscape that journalist Jens Lindworsky and photographer Reiner Riedler stepped into, hoping to find a snapshot of Russia’s circus in the 21st century.

“It was exciting to enter a world that, for the normal audience, is hidden,” says Reiner.

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“I am a very curious person. Since the very beginning, the camera has helped me open doors to interesting people, places and themes. It’s been the key to legitimising my presence in those hard-to-reach or under-the-radar settings.”

This particular project – Like a Bear On a Wire – marked a crossroads in Reiner’s career.

The Austrian started out as a photojournalist covering Eastern Europe for international magazines before making more conceptual work just as documentary photography seeped into the art market.

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His project Fake Holidays saw him photograph ‘unreal’ environments in 50 theme parks around the world, becoming a viral sensation.

“When I finished it, I didn’t see any potential for continuing with documentary photography,” he says.

“Although I was quite successful with what I did, I felt like I was repeating myself. Most of my projects last for around four to five years so there has to be enough motivation to keep going.

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“But I must say, in all my works, the one common denominator is a social connection.”

The appeal of embedding himself with a Russian circus, he explains, was an opportunity to better understand the country itself.

Reiner and Jens began learning the language, doing some research and making connections. Access came easy.

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A new generation of circus directors were trying to revitalise the industry by luring top performers back home, modernising their operations and offering private tuition.

The performers – naturally at ease in front of cameras – allowed Reiner to observer their practices.

Once he built a rapport, the photographer enticed them to stand before beautiful backdrops.

‘Circus princess’, the picture he feels most connected to, came about in Selenograd – close to St. Petersburg.

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“It was a fleeting moment,” he says. “The acrobat was doing a very short ride on her horse before entering the tent for a performance.

“The contrast of the city’s grey background and the bright colour of the dress makes it a special image that also says something about the situation in Russia at that time – a message that extends beyond the image itself.”

These candid moments of juxtaposition – a collision of old and new – were exactly what Reiner needed to revive his passion for long-term documentary photography.

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It’s all about discovery, he says – just one little experience or observation can create an avalanche of ideas.

“What I find so exciting is that, for a very short time,you can become an expert in a subject – and each project brings you to new ground,” he says.

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“A good example is WILL: The Lifesaving Machines, which brought me to the field of medicine.

“I was completely naive at the very beginning but I learned quite a lot and I have now been giving talks in front of doctors without being nervous.

“So I must say that I feel much more open to believe and trust in myself because of that process of exploration.”

Reiner Riedler is represented by the Azenberger Agency.

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