It’s not every day that the average Oklahoman gets to see an elephant raise a circus tent. Even photographer Kenneth Ruggiano, who spent five days traveling with the Kelly Miller Circus around rural Oklahoma, only saw it once. But he was lucky enough to capture it.
Ruggiano has been shooting full time for three years now, doing mostly magazine work. Recently, he’d wanted a break, a chance to do a personal project. The ideas flowed, but one stuck in his mind. He knew that other photographers had captured the circus life. He also knew he wasn’t one of them. Ruggiano wanted the chance to do it his way.
In March of 2011, the Kelly Miller Circus traveled to five towns in five days, with Ruggiano in tow. At first, it was difficult for the performers and tent crew to get used to having him around. But, slowly, everyone adjusted. “It’s like if someone came into your backyard, and told you they wanted to photograph your life,” he said.
In each town, if the word gets out enough, the citizens will pour in to fill the big top. But on the occasion that school children take a break from the day to watch the show going up, Lisa, one of the three Kelly elephants, will help set up the tent. Nothing about the circus is spur of the moment, not when you’re breaking down and moving to another town every day. When the time came for the elephant to raise the tent— something nearly larger than life—Ruggiano was ready. Captured in his image is Armando Loyal guiding Lisa to put on another of her jaw-dropping spectacles.
A circus job isn’t on everybody’s resume, but at the end of the day, circus people live ordinary lives. Just not convenient ones. Home is a place on wheels. Families are bred into the circus, nine generations deep. Everyone who is a part of the circus becomes a part of the family that performs together and dies together. In Hugo, the hometown of the Kelly Miller circus, a cemetery for performers, crew, and animals is where the show finally ends.