Finding hope and resilience in a Senegalese circus school

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Portrait of Humanity Series winner Claudia Gschwend’s project about Sencirk circus is a powerful portrait of dynamic joy

In September 2020, a friend working at a circus charity in Switzerland called Claudia Gschwend with an idea. The charity was shipping a container full of donated circus equipment to Sencirk, a circus school in Dakar, and she wondered if Gschwend would like to document the process? The photographer was fascinated and committed to the project immediately. However, Covid-19 complicated coordinating the plans and it took four weeks to secure letters supporting the work from the embassy in London. The document confirming their entry to Senegal came just 24 hours before the flight. “I had to trust my intuition and was hoping for a miracle,” Gschwend remembers.

Thankfully all fell into place, and the photographer arrived in Dakar in January 2021, where she went on to spend three weeks at Sencirk. “Every day we visited the circus tent and other locations to learn all about their projects,” she describes. “I collected as much material as I could and was editing for eight weeks when I came back to London.”

© Claudia Gschwend, Portrait of Humanity Vol.4 Series Winner.

Modou Touré, a circus artist and former child beggar, founded Sencirk, keen to offer disadvantaged young people the opportunity to gain self-confidence in the dynamic context of the circus. Today, nearly 30 artists train daily in the Sencirk tent, and Touré’s team work on additional projects in hospitals and institutions across the country. “It’s a community built on resilience: a group of young people working through shared trauma who are strengthened by their potential to overcome it together,” the photographer describes.

Gschwend’s portraits are formally striking, rendered in bright colours and high contrast. Her subjects balance atop one another or cast shapes against the backdrop of a spotless blue sky, their strength and athleticism palpable. The photographer adopted a low vantage point, looking up at the performers to create a sense of majesty and power, an effect enhanced by the elaborate costumes and crowns that many of them wear in the images. “It was important to me to take the portraits in a way that gave space to highlight the unique features of each of these amazing artists,” Gschwend explains.

“It’s all about the magic of a short moment: to capture someone’s emotions and authenticity.”

– Claudia Gschwend

Now, 11 years into her career, photography continues to challenge and delight Gschwend. “It’s my way of building bridges with communities and individuals,” she says. “It’s all about the magic of a short moment: to capture someone’s emotions and authenticity. Creating this memory with a photograph, and telling a story with it, can be really powerful.”

The series will be exhibited at PHOTO22 in Melbourne as one of the winners of Portrait of Humanity’s Series awards. “I feel extremely honoured and grateful to receive this award, due to its meaningful theme and the high standard set by previous years,” reflects Gschwend. “I’ve learnt so much during this project, and it’s beautiful to see how the journey is continuing. It’s amazing to get more recognition and being able to show it to a broader audience.” 

© Claudia Gschwend, Portrait of Humanity Vol.4 Series Winner.

Recognition for the work is especially meaningful to Gschwend given the underlying theme of the project. “For me, the Sencirk circus, and this series, are all about hope,” she says. “This circus community gives young people something to aspire to, a chance to dream and to feel joy. In my eyes, a strong community helps us with the struggles in our daily life and our mental health.”

Portrait of Humanity celebrates that which unites us during turbulent times, and the strength and courage that are to be found among our fellow humans. Now in its fifth edition, the current iteration of the award is open for entries until 14th July 2022.