Circus Photographers Keep Art in Focus

Note: This is part one of a two-part series. Look for part two on Nov. 20th.

Circus artists rarely stay still.

Our earthly limitations of gravity, strength and flexibility demand constant motion to maintain balance and control. Capturing the resulting whirlwind of kinetic energy in a single frame is a true feat.

Fortunately, DMV photographers are up to the task.

The District Ringer spoke to Dani Pierce and Shamal Halmat, both of whom excel at keeping circus arts in the frame. We learned what makes a good image, how the circus community can support their work, and what projects they’ve been dreaming up lately.

Dani Pierce for Street Light Circus (c) 2016

For Dani Pierce, photography began as a way to indulge her creativity without feeling the pressure of a live performance.

“I always had a camera in my hand, even when I was a little kid,” Pierce said. “I discovered at an early age that if I took a picture or made a video that was interesting, it was a way of passively getting attention without having to be a performer.”

She said the photography classes she took at the University of Akron offered a needed break from the law and business courses her family pushed her to study.

“I kind of wish that someone would have told me that there are people who actually make their careers out of photography, because I might have focused on it more in college,” she said.

Pierce said she felt lucky to be one of the last cohorts at the university to work with film.

Developing and printing photos in the darkroom gave her a tactile understanding of how to capture and edit an image, tools that digital photographers now manipulate with the click of a mouse. The darkroom also provided a comforting artistic space to glean inspiration from fellow creatives.

“The characters in that class were just all really unique, creative and welcoming,” Pierce said.

“I remember eating skittles while I was developing, which was probably so bad for my health,” she added, laughing.

From 2015-2017, Pierce took photos for the visual art/performance collaborative Street Light Circus, with exhibitions of her work appearing at American University’s Katzen Gallery, The Fridge (Capitol Hill), and The GallAerie (Mount Pleasant).

“It was a really lovely way to connect with other creatives,” Pierce said. “I think that was the first time I really felt like a part of the scene in D.C., doing something that people found interesting.”

Pierce said her ideal photo shoot would focus on the process of developing a circus act from concept to execution, showing the unpolished moments of creation that go into the final product.

“It would just be about capturing the artist and their emotions through really simple portraiture,” she said.

As for supporting photographers in the community, Pierce said acknowledgment and engagement are key.

“Make sure that if someone has offered you something, that you are giving them credit,” she said. “And I think the best thing you can do for other artists is to remember them and continue to involve them.”

Shamal Halmat, Shamal Deare Creative (c) 2019

Shamal Halmat started pursuing photography seriously about three years ago. Before that, he often found himself on the other side of the lens.

As a juggler, Halmat said he was “always seeing people taking videos and pictures, then never ever seeing the footage,” echoing a common frustration for circus artists in a world saturated by smartphones. “So I decided to get a camera,” he said.

Halmat’s father ran an audio visual company when he was a kid, and Halmat later studied mass communications, public relations and advertising in college. So while he had a firm grasp of the marketing aspect, he craved a deeper understanding of photographic technique.

Much of his education came from ‘YouTube University,’ which he described as “watching hours and hours of videos, going out and actually practicing, and talking with friends who were already established photographers.”

Soon enough, he was attending events like Sunset & Chill to snap photos and video of one of his favorite subjects — fire spinning. But getting the right shot wasn’t always easy.

“The fire will start out really bright, but then it gets dimmer, so you have to adjust your settings to keep up with it,” he said. “The lighting conditions are very tricky.”

Now armed with a portfolio of work, Halmat said he is interested in helping circus performers strengthen their branding through marketing and press packages, and would also love to create a documentary about organizations bringing circus arts to refugee camps and crisis areas worldwide.

This summer, Halmat served as an assistant filmmaker for Resist, a music video produced by Sunset & Chill supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. This mesmerizing short film highlights local flow artists backed by the tunes of Mustafa Akbar and Fort Knox Five Recordings.

“That was just great — being able to work with my friends, work with flow, and use a really nice RED cinema camera,” he said. “I’ve been really appreciative and grateful for all the things that Sunset & Chill has been doing for myself and the community.”

Credits: Directed By: Spencer Grundler Producers: Sunset & Chill (Max Labasbas, Sam Stevens, Wade Hammes) Edited By: Daniel Bowie Music Contributed by: Mustafa Akbar, Fort Knox Five Recordings 1st AC: Shamal Halmat Equipment Rental Courtesy of: Capital Camera Rentals Performers: Rae Hopkins Willow Snow Coffin Nachtmar AArrow Sign Spinners (…) Sonny Tran Iman Bowman

Further reading: How a diverse community harnesses its skills to support Black Lives Matter The Uncommon District, Aug. 21, 2020.


Join us next week for Part Four of The Covid Chronicles, profiling TSNY-DC (Navy Yard) in its quest to resume classes and maintain community (safely) in unprecedented times.

And come back on Nov. 20th for TRICKS OF THE LIGHT: PART TWO, including pro photo/video tips from our featured photographers and some insight into the artists who have inspired their work.