Emily Ainsworth was so determined to travel and photograph the world that she worked multiple odd jobs, even scrubbing toilets to follow her dream. Her fascination with the human spirit brought her to photograph spiritual life on the Ganges, the Hutong maze of Beijing, and nomads in Mongolia. “I find it compelling how, working as a photographer and anthropologist gives me the potential to visit anywhere, and meet anyone in the world,” Ainsworth says. In 2011, with her National Geographic grant, she joined a Mexican circus as a dancer, documenting and participating in this world of magic and masquerade.
What project are you working on now?
I’ve submitted an expedition proposal to record the last few months of a magician’s colony in India, before it is demolished. The lives and the realities of travelling and street performers all over the world have a lot in common, from the heirs of Soviet-sponsored gymnastic miracles in Eastern Europe, to the illusionists making magic on the streets of Delhi, to the blood, sweat, and glitter of Mexico’s circus industry. I hope, long term, to be able to document these existences on an international scale.
If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
I wouldn’t trade the experiences and opportunities I’ve had with National Geographic with anyone—I am so grateful for them. That said, I think that Wade Davis’s work is powerful and important, and he writes beautifully.
What do think you National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
I’m certain that there will be trips to Mars and beyond. Aside from this, the world and our understanding of it has always changed throughout human history. There has never, and will never, be any danger of us running out of new discoveries.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your field of work?
In the circus, surprise is a common currency. I learnt that if I wanted to fit in, then I had to pretend to be unimpressed when a dog started dancing salsa, or when a five-year-old contorted herself into a complex knot. I saw feats of superhuman strength and ability, and privately I was amazed to discover how capable and resilient the human body is. Learning that gravity is a law made to be disobeyed was a lesson for life.
Have you ever been lost? How did you find yourself?
I’m always lost—I can’t get more than five minutes from my front door without having to beg someone for a pointer in the right direction. I’ve found that it’s a big advantage whenever I’ve been on an expedition; I never fuss about where I am because I’ve learnt that people will always help.
What one item do you always have with you?
I try very hard not to leave home without my keys and camera.
What are you reading?
Waterlog, Roger Deakin’s personal account of his swims through Britain’s wild fens and streams and whirlpools. It is the most eccentric and evocative travel writing. He is completely unfazed by ‘private property’ signs or threats of sewage or bumptious wardens with weapon dogs. My hero.
What is your favorite food?
Chocolate. I’m counting the days until I get to unwrap Easter eggs again.
What are you listening to?
The Spice Girls—I’ve got the Olympic Closing Ceremony playing on the telly. When I was 11, me and my friends spent every lunch break fighting about who would get to play Geri in her Brit dress. Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) is whipping out his best moves in the crowd.
If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?
“Give up on learning the recorder immediately!”
I wouldn’t bother with any of the ‘follow your dreams’ motivational speeches. When you’re eight years old, that’s just instinct—you know that anything is possible.
If you won the lottery, what would you buy? Where would you travel?
Driving lessons, an even better camera, plus the obligatory bath full of champagne, and all the caviar in Russia. I have vandalised my atlas in dreaming of Bhutan (the lottery is the only way I could afford a visa), the Spice Islands, Nicaragua, the Himalaya, the salt mines of Timbuktu, the wild west of Turkey, and of Bolivia and Brazil. I would also spend a lot of time in Mexico. Given that I didn’t win Friday night’s Euromillions Jackpot, and that the odds are against me, I’m going to have to go to all of these places regardless.
If you were a baseball player and came up to bat, what song would be played?
“Beat It” by Michael Jackson
See Michael Jackson perform “Beat It”:
Do you have a hidden talent?
What with the need to fight off the recession, I’m flaunting any talent I have with the hope of paying the bills. I can swear fluently in Slovakian and Mongolian though, and given that I don’t get the chance to practice too often, and that it’s never going to earn me much money, I suppose it counts as hidden…
What is your favorite National Geographic photograph?
It’s impossible to choose! I am a huge fan of David Alan Harvey’s work.
What is your favorite National Geographic article?
I got hooked on National Geographic when I picked up a copy at the dentist. It was running Eric Valli’s story on salt caravans in the Himalaya. His adventures are extraordinary.
If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
A diplodocus. If I could have a subspecies as well, then I’d resurrect Lonesome George, the last Pinta giant tortoise in the Galápagos, who died in June, aged 100.