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Emily Ainsworth  

National Geographic Explorer, Photographer and Anthropologist based in London

She studied Literature at Oxford, Anthropology at Cambridge, and Photography at Central Saint Martins.

She has worked all over the world, in the Mexican Circus, alongside troupes of Midget Bullfighters, and amongst Mongolian nomadic herders.

She has been awarded the Winston Churchill Exploration Fellowship, and BBC and Royal Geographical Society Journey of a Lifetime Award.

Emily Ainsworth was so determined to travel and photograph the world that she worked multiple odd jobs, even scrubbing toilets to follow her dream. Her fascination with the human spirit brought her to photograph spiritual life on the Ganges, the Hutong maze of Beijing, and nomads in Mongolia. I find it compelling how, working as a photographer and anthropologist gives me the potential to visit anywhere, and meet anyone in the world, Ainsworth says. In 2011, with her National Geographic grant, she joined a Mexican circus as a dancer, documenting and participating in this world of magic and masquerade.

I started taking photographs because it seemed like the best excuse for being antisocially curious, and trained as an anthropologist for the same reason. I wanted to travel; England is a small country, and I saved up for years, scrubbing out toilets, and nit-combing dozens of village children so that I could afford to fly abroad.

I am fascinated in how the world, viewed through the lens of different cultures, becomes prismatic. My work as a documentary photographer and anthropologist has been driven by a desire to understand and depict how radically disparate populations make sense of their realities. This interest has taken me along the Ganges, documenting spiritual life. It led me through the Beijing's ancient Hutong maze, mapping the twists of its alleys weeks before it was demolished under the Olympic plan, and later, from East to West across Mongolia, investigating nomadic politics.

I went on my first expedition to Mexico when I was 16 and was caught by the drama and vibrancy, the violent celebration of everyday life. I have returned, and returned again ever since. I documented the Days of the Dead, pilgrimage routes and village fiestas, and at first, the idea of joining a circus was just to delay the inevitable flight home, but I fell in love with the magic and masquerade of the lifestyle and it has been my second home ever since.

On my first day in the circus (I was recording a BBC radio documentary at the time) I was asked if I wanted an act as a dancer. Within five minutes, I was knotted into a corset, painted with a false blush, and pushed into the ring lights as "Princess Aurora." Hilariously, it was like a childhood dream come true. I was given a trailer of my own, and upgraded from sleeping in the back of a lorry, and every night, I lined up alongside the other dancers, to kiss rows of popcorn-sticky toddlers from the audience. It was such a privilege to get to feel like I belonged as, in Mexico, the circus community exists at a tangent from mainstream society and many artists perform under the birthright of having seven generations of circus blood pulsing through their veins. I have never taken for granted the fact that I was allowed such a level of insight, as an outsider.

The biggest challenge I have to face when working in the field is saying goodbyeI find it impossible to do without going through boxes of tissues. It's the reason why I've gone back to the circus so many times over the past few years, and why I hope I can still feel like it's my home when I'm pushing 70.


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