In the latest edition of my reflections on photography series Monday Memories, a young student stretches at Battambang circus school in northwest Cambodia. Ouch.

Over the last few months I’ve spent some time behind the scenes taking photographs of performers under the big top at Phare Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap, as well as at Phare Ponleu Selpak, the performing arts school in Battambang which is home to the circus school.

While watching a rehearsal for a show in Siem Reap, I witnessed a young woman performer practicing landing into the arms of a couple of male performers. I could barely watch let alone take a photograph as she grimaced in pain from landing in the splits position — over and over again.

That night as I watched the circus show I saw her perform the same act but this time she smiled as if she was actually enjoying it and it was me in the audience grimacing for her. I still wince whenever I scroll through the photos and see the shots I took of her that day.

On a recent trip to Battambang we had the opportunity to go behind the scenes as part of the Phare Circus Experience offered by Asia-based tour company Backyard Travel, which includes a briefing on the history of the school (it was started by eight former refugees who met at a camp on the Thai border during the Khmer Rouge era), a tour of the facilities, and a chance to see classes — which is how I got to see the training of the young circus students firsthand.

While it was fun to watch the cute kids getting into their warm-up class (they start so young!), it was the students practicing doing the splits as part of their stretching exercises that caught my eye. While many of the young boys screwed up their faces as they took their turns to stretch, this little lady appeared to actually enjoy her stretches enough to give me a smile.

I like the symmetry of the photo and the way she is perfectly positioned on the lower third of the frame horizontally, but is also centered vertically. I love the look on the face of the girl frame right, whose turn it is next to do her stretching exercise. And I love the way the light falls off further in the back of the room, creating a natural vignette that gives the subject more prominence.

As you can see by the torn matting on the floor, the Battambang school doesn’t have a huge budget to work with, making the results they achieve there, in all areas, not just the circus school (they also teach music, art, design, animation, and film), all the more impressive.

Phare Ponleu Selpak do great work and the Phare Cambodian Cirus shows are life-affirming events where you can really see the joy that these young people get out of performing, even if getting there involves more than a little pain.

Details: Nikon D600, 85mm f/1.4D Nikkor @ F2.5 @ 1/1250th second @ ISO1600.

You can see more of my photos of the performers in Lara’s story Under the Big Top at Cambodia’s Edgy Phare Circus on CNN Travel.

Phare Cambodian Circus, Siem Reap

Phare Ponleu Selpak, Battambang

Backyard Travel

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