Behind the Curtain: years in the life of a Zoppé Circus family by Beth Rooney

Photographer: Beth Rooney | Guest Curator: Anita Pouchard Serra

Captions: Elizabeth Atalay

Zoppé an Italian Family Circus pays homage to the first Zoppé circus that travelled Italy over a century ago, and traces its roots back to 1842.  According to family legend, that was the year a young French street performer named Napoline Zoppé eloped to Venice with an equestrian ballerina known as Ermenegilda and founded the circus that still bears their name. Now, Nino, whose real name is Giovanni Zoppé, is the sixth generation of his family to lead the Zoppé Circus.  

This circus has just one ring and its troupe that consists of a rotating cast of families who travel the U.S. performing at county fairs and festivals. Their show evokes images from a Victorian-era children’s book: there are trapeze artists, aerialists, graceful leaping horses, dancing dogs, jugglers, and of course, clowns. The show seems frozen in time. An image from the past that, in many minds, has been replaced by  more modern, flashier shows with high concepts and high prices.

The Zoppé troupe remains focused on emotional connections with the audience and works to preserve the dying art of family circus. As Giovanni Zoppé explains, “To me, the word circus means family."  

In that phrase, Giovanni captures the appeal of this story for me: Freedom and family. Over the years of meeting the Zoppés at various festivals and fairs, there is always the magical, intoxicating call of freedom, travel and open road. But the circus manages to blend that romantic call with the comfort and joy of having family and friends at your side. 

This is CLEARLY an over-simplification of their lives and their livelihood, but it is an amazing, inspiring life. One filled with many ups and downs and complications--divorce, sickness, money shortages, changing acts, school for kids, and all the demands and problems we all face in life-- except their drama and struggle has a more interesting backdrop. 

I started photographing this circus a few years after college. I have continued photographing it as my family grew and changed, just as the Zoppé family grew and changed. The course of their lives and mine met in some places and diverged in others. I learned a lot about  the technical challenges of shooting in a very dark, but very active space, about getting too close to the story and getting too distant. The images are meant to reflect the day-to-day story of their shows, their lives on the road and the complications and the joys that come when working closely with family. 

I approach the tent every day as if it was my first day with them. This helped me keep things fresh and to keep moving forward with the story. Like many long-term projects there is a fair amount of downtime - moments where you can let your mind wander and lose focus. It was so easy to lose myself, chatting and laughing behind the curtain, savoring the company of the family and their troupe or just marveling at the show.  This was the biggest challenge for me – to shift from that passive mode and get my mind moving and seeing again, to document the circus and the beautiful stories within it.

In the end the Zoppé story is a combination of Fellini, the open road  and a family picture album This tangle of art, comedy, freedom, sadness and love beguiled me at first sight. It still does.  — Beth

There are themes of visual work that awaken a certain imagery simply by naming them - topics that we think we know, topics that we have seen many times, topics supposedly obvious.

We also often say that everything has already been done and already been seen. But I believe many times the opposite, that there is still a lot to do, because a visual story is the encounter of a story, a place, a community with the subjectivity of another person, a photographer.

I feel strongly that we must not deceive the viewer with false “universal truths”, and instead, open to them the possibility of connecting with a subject from the photographer’s own perspective, as long as we are clear and honest about that perspective with our audience.

When Beth's work came into my hands, I had a feeling of already knowing from other works or at least imagining what the life of a circus entailed, so I looked within her work other clues, other stories behind the curtain and behind the stage.

 I’ve found engaging pictures which took my editing toward the Intimate, to family relationships, to the before and after, to a place where it seems to me that Beth's work could find its strength and particularity. A place where we could ignore images from the outside, as if through her lens we can just pass our heads through the curtain to reconnect with the show. — Anita

Hover over image to read caption.

Beth Rooney is a Nebraska-born, Chicago-raised visual-journalist. She is motivated by her passion for photography, food, culture, writing and immersive travel, and is especially drawn to documentary work for the opportunity it affords to make an extended study of culture and life.  

A graduate of Ohio University, Rooney interned with Lauren Greenfield, attended the Eddie Adams Workshop. She has photographed a cookbook, The Chicago Chef's Table, and was a featured photographer in the book Lens on Life. Past and current clients include: Morning Calm, The Chicago Tribune, Wire, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Saveur, Der Spiegel, Chicago Public Radio, Stern, FADER, Time, Abbvie, American Ways, Virtuoso, Illinois Tourism Board, and University of Chicago. 

“My ultimate goal is the tell stories with a strong narrative and a vibrant, thoughtful aesthetic,” says Beth.

Anita Pouchard Serra is a dancer, architect and anthropologist, and documentary photojournalist.

“I photograph what I live rather than what I see, in total immersion in the heart of territories or stories that interrogate me. My work revolves around questions and territories that cross me personally, connected with current societal problems around identity, migration, empowerment and territory with a transdisciplinary approach.  My photographic practice goes beyond the mere creation of images. I worked with collectives Ojo de Pez and Compromiso Fotografico (AR) giving workshops of photojournalism in the underprivileged neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and Paroles de Photographe (FR) and as a teacher in several schools.”

In 2018, Serra was awarded the MOVING WALLS 25 Fellowship of the Open Society Foundations and the ADELANTE Reporting Grant of the International Women Media Foundation with Koral Carballo and Jessica Avalos to continue the project “Welcome to Intipuca”. She was recently announced as a 2019 We, Women Grantee. Her work has been published in Le Monde, Bloomberg, Sunday Times, New York Times Lens blog, Geo Magazine, Liberation, Wired, Days Japan, Revista Lento, Revista Anfibia, Les Inrocks, etc. and she has been widely exhibited as well.

Captions writer Elizabeth Atalay is an avid snapshot photographer, but is more at home with words than with a camera. In her 15 years as a research editor at National Geographic magazine, she’s had the chance to help research and craft captions for some of the best images in the world. Now she’s thrilled to be working with Confluence Magazine to help give voice to the next generation of documentary photographers. Elizabeth is available for captions writing, editing, and consultation.