As Headlines Fly, Photo Shoot Bridges Discussion About Circus Photography

Circus News

As Headlines Fly, Photo Shoot Bridges Discussion About Circus Photography

Circus photographer Avi Pryntz-Nadworny made the news on April 15th when, during a photo shoot with headlining Cirque US performer Julia Baccellieri (they/them) on the Rochester Bridge in Rochester, NY, a concerned passerby called 911, thinking that someone was in danger. That evening, the Rochester Fire Department released a statement reporting that “a life was saved the day.”

“This narrative of someone being in danger and needing rescue is not accurate,” Avi explains. “We were all seasoned professionals at the shoot, and no one was in danger at any time.” Now Avi hopes to set the record straight.

Julia Baccellieri, Black aerialist and circus artist, hangs upside-down from their dance trapeze under Rochester Bridge
Julia Baccellieri on the morning of April 15th

A performer and award-winning photographer, Avi has spent the last eight years using his camera lens to explore the identity and individuality of fellow circus artists. This mission is inspired by his learnings from his time as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. He explains, “I observed that we, as circus artists, can appear larger-than-life on stage, making it difficult for audiences to relate to us as individuals. So I started creating these dynamic portraits as a means to capture the identity of the performer without the barriers of makeup, costumes, and the spectacle of the stage.”

Avi’s photography career has taken him all over the globe to destinations such as London, Shanghai, Guadalajara, Catalonia, Québec, Guadalajara, and many parts of the USA. He has been grateful to work with circus artists from around the world and include them in his gallery.

For the past several years, Avi has expanded his efforts to encapsulate the full diversity of circus artists, focused on offering an equitable representation of the community through his photographs. This goal would lead him to meet Julia Baccellieri, a Black trapeze artist, acrobat, and contortionist… and Avi’s collaborator— and subject— for this particular photo shoot.

“Safety is always paramount in the circus community,” Avi says. “This shoot between friends was treated no differently than if it had been a commercial project.”

On that early, fateful morning, Avi and Julia were both onsite at Rochester Bridge along with a select group of industry professionals. An experienced rigger as well as an aerialist, Julia did all the rigging for their dance trapeze, which they suspended from the bridge using professional-grade equipment.

Also present at the shoot was Ashley, another seasoned circus performer, stationed on the bridge itself. As well, Avi shared his canoe with another professional aerialist, who piloted the boat so Avi could focus on his photography. All four members of this group wore wireless headsets throughout to communicate instructions and check in with one another about safety.

The group was having a good morning despite the cold weather. Julia swung artfully from their trapeze over the river’s surface. From the canoe, Avi lined up the image in his camera lens, determined to get the perfect shot just as the sun rose.

Under Rochester Bridge, Black circus performer Julia Baccellieri holds her dance trapeze and skims the Genesee River's surface with her feet
Julia Baccellieri

Avi himself describes the rest of the morning as follows:

“The sun rose, and we started shooting. The local university rowing team was practicing on the Genesee River, and their cheers and applause drifted over the water as Julia posed. They hit all the poses that we had discussed.

“I had just congratulated Julia on a successful shoot, and we were about to pack up when we heard Ashley’s voice in my earpiece, letting us know that there were officers on the river bank. We quickly headed to shore to see what the issue was. There we were told that someone had called 911, concerned that there was a body hanging under the bridge. I got the sense from the first responders that they were expecting to see someone there attempting self-harm.

“We explained we were all professional circus artists; no one was in any danger, and Julia was just about to climb up themselves— an easy task for Julia, who does much more complex moves every day in their performances. Even so, the Rochester Fire Department told us, due to protocol, Julia would have to sit tight until they could rig up a system to lower someone down to lift Julia up.

“Overhearing that they would have to bring a boat in before attempting anything and it would take a while to get here, I suggested that Julia could just step into our canoe to save everyone more trouble. Julia could easily touch the water with their toes, and it would be simple for us to just paddle over and have them sit down. The first responders declined the offer, I assumed due to the same protocol and liability concerns preventing Julia from just climbing up.

“We then waited for about 40 minutes as the RFD set up their system. During this time, I spoke with the police while we all watched the Fire Department prepare for the operation. Some of the officers expressed interest in bringing their kids to watch Julia’s show after I showed them the trailer.

“In our conversation, they also informed me that they wouldn’t be pressing any charges, and that they would have let us climb up ourselves and leave, but policy wouldn’t allow it. I then inquired what I could do in the future to avoid having someone call 911 and have everyone rush over, expecting someone in need of rescue.

Under the Rochester Bridge, Julia Baccellieri, Black circus performer, flies on their dance trapeze
Julia flies

“The officer explained that in the future, I should call the city to find out if I needed a permit for a shoot, and then call 311, the dispatch’s non-emergency line, to give them a heads-up in case someone called thinking someone was in danger. I thanked them, as this was all new knowledge for me. We chatted for the remainder of the time until the RFD lowered someone down to Julia and brought them up. Then we headed to our cars to get to work, thinking that was the end of it.

“Later in the day, I found out that we had made the news. To my surprise, the initial focus of reporting was on a failed photo shoot: a photographer stuck under a bridge, their life in danger, and requiring an emergency rescue.”

In an interview, Avi states, “In my opinion, based on many years as a professional circus artist and photographer, I believe we had prepared everything in a secure manner up to spec. However, I completely understand that from an emergency services point of view, there are certain steps that one is supposed to take in these situations. The circus skills I photograph take years of professional coaching and training. No one on the team just turned up the day of and decided to do something outside their comfort zone.”

While Avi will be contacting 311 next time he wants to photograph a circus friend in Rochester, the incident brings up the interesting question of what artistic acts constitute the need to get approval. After all, this wasn’t a shoot with a paid client— just some friends getting what they hoped would be some impactful images. Do artists need to get a permit and call 311 before photographing their friends doing cartwheels in the park, or riding unicycles? Or what about a backflip?

“It’s a nuanced conversation that really comes down to trust, skill, liability, and perceived and actual risks,” Avi says. “Unfortunately I’ve found that in the USA, most decisions are made by fear, which leads so many people to experience fewer moments of beauty and wonder in their day-to-day lives.”

As the Rochester bridge photo shoot continues to pop up in news headlines and conversations, Avi has no plans to stop his photography work. He simply doesn’t want the details of the real story to get lost in the news narrative. Pictures are worth a thousand words— and so is the artistry that goes into them, and all the people shown in them. “Stripping away the circus tent, costumes, and make-up,” says Avi, “I allow the viewer to see the human behind the spectacle.”

Source: Press release. All images credited to Avi Pryntz-Nadworny
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