Working within this genre Ben has travelled around the world to document and photograph this rare and sometimes unusual subject matter. In June earlier this year we supplied Ben Hopper with a whole bunch of Canon kit to take away for his recent trip to Norway, where he spent a few days photographing at the contemporary circus festival The Circus Village, as a part of his research for a new project called “Duende”. In his own words and pictures, he gave us a personal insight to his experiences so far.

Words | Ben Hopper

Hey there!

Before I start I’d like to insert a small disclaimer. I’m much better at taking photos than writing about it. Since that’s the case, I’m just going to pretend I’m talking to you rather than actually writing a little piece about my work. I hope that’s ok with you.

Here we go...

About 7 years ago I picked up my first camera. Around the same time my younger brother, Ayal Benin, started discovering the world of contemporary circus, as a performer. He trained in capoeira for few years, followed by a short career as a freestyle Frisbee player. A career during which he won first place at the first Israeli Freestyle Frisbee championship.

A year later my brother moved from Israel to Madrid and a few months after, I moved to London. Ayal went to a circus school called Carampa for a 2 year preparation course of contemporary circus studies. In the following years he merged all of his physical skills into what he’s now performing around Europe - Freestyle Frisbee, Juggling & Acrobatics. After about 4 years he also moved to Toulouse to continue his circus training in Lido, one of Europe’s best circus schools. He now resides in Toulouse, which is a major hub for circus performers. Ayal was my biggest inspiration and the reason why I started photographing contemporary circus.


In October 2009 I travelled to France to photograph Ayal at CIRCa Festival. CIRCa is one of the most important contemporary circus festivals, taking place in the picturesque town of Auch in the South of France. Ayal was lucky enough to be chosen to perform with a selected group of graduates from his school as a part of a series of shows called CIRCLE; a showcase of graduates from different circus schools from all over the world. The schools are all a part of FEDEC; ‘European Federation of Professional Circus Schools’.

There wasn’t much planning in terms of my involvement, I took photos of the Carampa show but I also took some photos of other FEDEC shows as well as some international shows by different companies. I was just there; I thought I might as well…

Since 2009 CIRCLE at CIRCa became a regular job for me. I’ve made a lot of contacts and loads of work has been created from the annual presence at the festival, both commercial and personal.

A few years ago my brother, who was living in Spain and talking fluent Spanish by then, told me about the word ‘Duende’. Duende is a Spanish word that gets used a lot in flamenco. It seems like it has a lot of subtlety in the original language, but broadly it's the spirit or the demon or the fire that animates the dancer in the moment of performance; so it's a thing from outside that enters them, lights them up - for a few minutes or just a second.

The idea was to capture that moment in photos and possibly video. I’ve become fascinated with this project. I started talking about it with everyone I met that had anything to do with performance and art. It was only talking, I was quite intimidated to actually approach it. How the hell do you photograph a ‘ghost’?!

John Ellingsworth is the brain behind Sideshow Circus Magazine, the most notable place covering contemporary circus in English. A few years later John talked about the project to the CircusFest producers at The Roundhouse in London, who suggested they commission me to photograph CircusFest 2013 as an excuse to start researching Duende with John, writing for the project. I shat my pants and said yes...

John’s request was that we start with contemporary circus, as it’s his writing specialty. The idea was to start a research phase to develop the style and aesthetic for the project. I’ll be in charge of the visual aspect and John will do the writing & help me think about the format and the distribution. Once we had CircusFest, we contacted a bunch of festivals about possible support in the research. The Circus Village in Norway was keen. They agreed to pay travel and basic expenses for me to come over to Norway, chill and take photos.

The Circus Village

The Circus Village is a small contemporary circus festival that usually happens twice a year - in June and August. In June, earlier this year, I flew over to photograph the one they held in Kalvøya, a small island in Sandvika - a city at the fringes of Oslo. Kalvøya was beautiful, I took a lot of photos of the island itself. I was there with a mix of mainly Finnish performers but also Norwegian, Swedish and one Malagasy (from Madagascar).

My main conclusion/realisation from both CircusFest in London and The Circus Village was that it’s nearly impossible to find ‘Duende’ in contemporary circus. Contemporary circus often requires concentration to avoid injury. Duende requires a platform where the artists can let go, get into the ‘flow’ and let the Duende in.

I found no Duende in CircusFest and no Duende at The Circus Village besides a couple of showcases of works in progress – but it was an essential part of the research and helped me realise the direction the research should take. I also met a lovely group of artists, producers and performers and obviously took photos of it all.

The shows that were more ‘Duende’ related were a showcase of work in progress; Tanter and MOI by Gaby Saranouffi. The work in progress showcase by Tanter was very interesting to watch. Tanter is a group of 3 female circus artists; Karoline Aamås, Moa Asklof Prescott and Elise Bjerkelund Reine.

Guided by Canadian Angela Laurier, Karoline & Moa were individually and simultaneously talking into a microphone, telling stories from their lives on the side of the stage while Elise was improvising with her body on the main stage area in front of us. The interesting thing was that Elise wasn’t listening to the words; she was listening to the rhythm of the speech, intonation, volume etc. It’s a similar process to get into ‘flow’, a state that enables the Duende moment. I found the fact Elise didn’t listen to the actual words really intriguing.

The other show that was more directly related to Duende was MOI by Gaby Saranouffi - dancer and choreographer from Madagascar. She’s also the founder of I’TRÔTRA Contemporary Dance Festival in Madagascar.

“MOI” is about women, sexuality, strength, abuse, aggression and beauty. Her stage presence is incredible. The show was in a smaller tent and what seemed an unfortunate situation turned out to be bliss; just before the show, which was the first one Gaby performed, we learned there were not enough tickets sold. I was there to photograph it but Gaby had the choice of canceling the show or performing anyway which meant it was more a performance for the camera than to an audience. It also meant I could move around freely and take way more photos than I’d usually take under normal circumstances when you have an audience that gets annoyed by each shutter click.

The images I got from this show are breathtaking, at least to me. Gaby is a very intense performer. Until I photographed her I didn’t really think about African performers and Duende in Africa. How didn’t I? It’s so obvious. With shaman culture and deep connection to spirit you could tell Gaby doesn’t need much to get into the danger zone. Or is it danger for her, at all? Could be the solution.

So there it is.

Next for me is to continue the research of Duende. John and myself will be hunting for funding and continue to pin down individuals who we believe ‘have Duende’ so we can try and take photos of it, live, and alive.

This coming October I shall be attending my annual ritual at CIRCa and continue to make bigger plans. I hope to do more work in France with contemporary circus; it’s truly what moves me and makes me happy.

I hope I made you happy with those photos too.


We'll be sharing Ben's next step on the search for Duende when he returns from his trip to CIRCa Festival in Auch, France, in October.

See you there.