Last week, a team of self-described “brave” and “heroic” firefighters “saved” a woman hanging from a bridge. But the woman, who is a trained circus performer, and the photographer say the narrative of someone in danger and needing rescue was not accurate.
Avi Pryntz-Nadworny is a former Cirque du Soleil acrobat and an award-winning photographer who has worked for several years specifically with the circus community to capture photos of the professionals in action.
“I observed that we, as circus artists, can appear larger than life on stage, making it difficult to relate to us as individuals,” he says. “I started creating these dynamic portraits as a means to capture the identity of the performer without the barrier of makeup, costumes, and the spectacle of the stage.”
Over the past eight years, he has photographed some of the world’s best circus artists from all over the globe. On April 15, he was working with a headline performer Julia Baccellieri from Cirque US, a traveling circus that was passing through Rochester, New York.
Baccellieri is a Black trapeze artist, acrobat, and contortionist and Pryntz-Nadworny says he has been working for the past several years to present a more equitable representation within the circus community and says he was particularly excited for the shoot that day.
Photographer Says Safety Was a Priority
“Safety is always paramount in the circus community. This collaborative shoot between friends was treated no differently than if it had been a commercial project,” Pryntz-Nadworny says.
“All the rigging was professional equipment to ensure the safety of the artist. Julia, besides being a professional circus aerialist, is a rigger and did all the rigging for their dance trapeze.”
Pryntz-Nadworny tells PetaPixel that he was on-site along with a select group of industry professionals.
“Ashley, a seasoned performer, was stationed on the bridge. There was another professional aerialist piloting the canoe so Avi could focus on getting the shot just as the sun rose,” he says. “The group was on wireless headsets the entire time to communicate instructions and check-in about safety.”
As the sun rose, Pryntz-Nadworny started shooting. He says that a local university rowing team was practicing on the Genesee River that morning and cheered and applauded Baccellieri as they passed.
In images provided by Pryntz-Nadworny, Baccellieri’s feet can be seen mere inches above the water line or even making contact, showing that she was not hanging from a dangerous height.
“We hit all the poses we discussed and I had just congratulated Julia on a successful shoot, and we were about to pack up when we heard Ashley’s voice in my earpiece, letting us know there were officers on the river bank,” Pryntz-Nadworny says.
No Need for a Rescue
“We quickly headed to shore to see what the issue was. We were told that someone had called 911, concerned that there was a body hanging under the bridge. I got the sense from the first responders that they were expecting to see someone attempting self-harm,” he recalls.
“We explained we were all professional circus artists, no one was in any danger, and Julia was just about to climb up themselves, an easy task for Julia who does much more complex moves in their performance every day. The Rochester Fire Department told us due to protocol, Julia would have to sit tight until they could rig up a system to lower someone down to lift Julia up.”
Pryntz-Nadworny says he then overheard that the emergency responders were going to bring in a boat before they could attempt anything and that it would take a while before it arrived.
“I offered that Julia could just step into my boat to save everyone more trouble. Julia could easily touch the water with their toes and it would be simple to just paddle over and have them sit down. The first responders declined the offer, I assumed due to the same protocol and liability concerns preventing Julia from just climbing up.”
Pryntz-Nadworny says the wait for the first responder’s boat lasted about 40 minutes.
“During this time I spoke with the police while we all watched the Fire Department prepare for the operation,” he says.
“Some of the officers expressed interest in bringing their kids to watch Julia’s show after I showed them the trailer. In our conversation, they informed me that they weren’t pressing any charges and would have let us climb up and leave but policy wouldn’t allow it. I then inquired what I could do in the future to avoid having someone call 911 and have everyone rush over expecting someone in need of rescue.
“The officer explained that in the future I should call the city to find out if I need a permit then I could call the dispatch’s non-emergency to give them a heads up in case someone called thinking someone was in danger. I thanked them as this was all new knowledge for me. We chatted for the remainder of the time until the Rochester Fire Department lowered someone to Julia, brought them up and we headed to our cars to get to work thinking that was the end of it.”
Photographre Says the First Responders Misrepresented the Facts
But rather than moving on, Pryntz-Nadworny later was surprised to hear he had made the news and that the fire department was taking credit for saving a woman after a failed photo shoot.
“To my surprise, the initial focus was on a failed photo shoot, a photographer being stuck under a bridge, someone’s life being in danger, and requiring an emergency rescue,” he says.
“In my opinion, based on many years as a professional circus artist and photographer, I believe we had prepared everything in a secure manner up to spec. I, however, completely understand that from an emergency services point of view, there are certain steps that one is supposed to take in these situations. The circus skills I photograph take years of professional coaching and training. No one in the team just turned up on the day and decided to do something outside their comfort zone.”
Pryntz-Nadworny says that while he will be calling 311 in the future the next time he wants to photograph a circus friend in Rochester, the situation brings up an interesting debate on what constitutes the need for approval.
“This wasn’t a shoot with a paid client. Just some friends getting some hopefully impactful images. Do artists need a permit and to call 311 before photographing their friends doing a cartwheel in the park, riding a unicycle, or what about a backflip?
“It’s a nuanced conversation that really comes down to trust, skill, liability, perceived, and actual risks. Unfortunately, I’ve found in the USA most decisions are made by fear which leads so many people to experience fewer moments of beauty and wonder in their day-to-day life.”
Image credits: Photos by Avi Pryntz-Nadworny