Backstage at a traveling circus

Story highlights

  • Dutch photographer Wiesje Peels has followed several traveling circuses in Europe
  • The photos in her book "Mimus" capture a glimpse of the performers' "hidden life"
  • Her fascination with the circus began as a child, when she worked with her dad's one-man show

(CNN)Just outside of a white and yellow tent in Germany, an elephant heaves a heavy sigh. His ears are lowered, his skin relaxed -- his trunk arched into a final pose.

"That's my favorite part of the circus," Dutch photographer Wiesje Peels said. "When there's a moment, five minutes before (performers) get on and five minutes after they get off."
    Peels' fascination with the circus began as a child. Her father traveled Europe as a one-man show, "Theatro Picollini," performing at hospitals and amusement parks.
    At 6 years old, Peels began helping her father as the magician's assistant. For five years, she watched her father walk a tightrope between being her dad and performing as a magician. It's what the majority of Peels' work focuses on, something she calls "in between worlds."
    Wiesje Peels
    In 2001, Peels traveled to India to follow and photograph a large ship. But instead, she felt a calling to run away with the Great Bombay Circus.
    Starkly different from her father's small production, the circus boasted multiple tents and more than 100 performers. She photographed the show for two weeks.
    At first, she shot the expected -- the splendor of the circus act. But it wasn't the whimsy on stage that truly appealed to Peels' artistry. She became interested in the evolution that occurred behind the curtain.
    Her book "Mimus" binds together roughly 100 photographs taken at several traveling circuses in Europe. The images capture a "glimpse of the hidden life of the performing artist."

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    The performers carry a certain melancholy when transitioning in and out of character. This is illustrated clearly in Peels' photo of a clown. He's still in costume, his makeup still intact, yet he's off-stage, no longer part of an act. He emanates an "unavoidable authenticity," Peels says.
    Peels' work is heavily influenced by other artwork, specifically 19th-century paintings. Before photographing every circus, she visits local museums to derive inspiration. But the true genius lies in her ability to relate to the performer. She finds herself "in between worlds," too.
    "There's the home life and the artist life," Peels says.
    As a wife and a mother of two, Peels says she struggles to find time to create, and she often seeks solace at artist residencies to focus solely on her work. Now she's in Zundert, Netherlands, the birthplace of Vincent van Gogh, in an effort to draw space to become a character of her own.
    "I live in two worlds," she said. "So do you."