‘No one was in danger,’ says photographer who triggered bridge ‘rescue’
Last week, a team of self-proclaimed “brave” and “heroic” firefighters “rescued” a woman hanging from a bridge. But the woman, who is a trained circus performer, and the photographer say the account of someone in danger and in need of rescue was not accurate.
Avi Pryntz-Nadworny is a former Cirque du Soleil acrobat and award-winning photographer who has worked for several years specifically with the circus community to capture photos of the professionals in action.
“I’ve observed that we as circus performers can appear larger than life on stage, which makes it difficult to relate to us as individuals,” he says. “I started creating these dynamic portraits as a way to capture the identity of the performer without the barrier of makeup, costumes and stage spectacle.”
Over the past eight years he has photographed some of the best circus performers from around the world. On April 15, he was working with star performer Julia Baccellieri of Cirque US, a traveling circus that passed through Rochester, New York.
Baccellieri is a black trapeze artist, acrobat and contortionist and Pryntz-Nadworny says he has worked for several years to present a more equitable representation within the circus community and says he was especially excited for the shoot that day.
Photographer says safety was a priority
“Safety is always paramount in the circus community. This collaborative filming between friends was treated no differently than if it were a commercial project,” says Pryntz-Nadworny.
“All the rigging was professional equipment to keep the performer safe. Julia, in addition to being a professional circus flyer, is a rigger and did all the rigging for their trapeze dance.
Pryntz-Nadworny recounts PetaPixel that he was on hand with a select group of industry professionals.
“Ashley, a seasoned interpreter, was stationed on deck. There was another professional acrobat piloting the canoe so Avi could focus on shooting as the sun came up,” he says. “The group was on wireless headsets the entire time to communicate instructions and check in on safety.”
At sunrise, Pryntz-Nadworny began shooting. He says a local college rowing team was practicing on the Genesee River that morning and cheered and cheered Baccellieri as they passed.
In footage provided by Pryntz-Nadworny, Baccellieri’s feet can be seen inches above the waterline or even touching, showing she was not suspended at a dangerous height.
“We struck all the poses we discussed and I had just congratulated Julia on a successful shoot, and we were about to pack our bags when we heard Ashley’s voice in my earpiece, letting us know that there were officers on the river bank,” Pryntz-Nadworny said.
No need for a rescue
“We quickly headed to shore to see what the problem was. We were told someone had called 911 fearing there was a body hanging below the bridge. I got the impression from first responders that they expected to see someone attempt to self-harm,” he recalls.
“We explained that we were all professional circus performers, that no one was in danger and that Julia was about to climb, an easy task for Julia who does much more complex movements in her performance every day. The Rochester Fire Department told us that due to protocol, Julia should remain seated until they can install a system to lower someone to lift Julia.
Pryntz-Nadworny says he then overheard that rescue workers were going to bring in a boat before they could attempt anything and that it would be some time before it arrived.
“I offered Julia to get in my boat to save everyone more trouble. Julia could easily touch the water with her toes and it would be simple to just paddle and sit them down. First responders declined the offer I assumed due to the same protocol and liability issues preventing Julia from just climbing.
Pryntz-Nadworny says the wait for the first responders’ boat lasted about 40 minutes.
“During this time I spoke with the police as we watched all the firefighters prepare for the operation,” he says.
“Some of the officers expressed interest in bringing their children to watch Julia’s show after I showed them the trailer. During our conversation, they informed me that they were not making any charges and that ‘they would have let us get in and go but the policy wouldn’t allow it so I asked what I could do in the future to avoid someone calling 911 and everyone rushing around waiting for someone needs to be rescued.
“The officer explained that in the future I should call the city to find out if I need a permit and then I could call non-emergency dispatch to give them a warning in case someone someone would call thinking someone was in danger. I thanked them as it was a new acquaintance to me. We chatted for the rest of the time until the Rochester fire department got someone down to Julia , get them up and we’d head to our cars to work thinking it was the end of it.
Photographer says first responders twisted facts
But rather than move on, Pryntz-Nadworny was then surprised to learn that he had made headlines and that firefighters were 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 stuck under a bridge, someone’s life in danger and in need of emergency response,” he says.
“In my opinion, based on many years as a professional circus performer and photographer, I think we had everything prepared safely and to specification. However, I fully understand that from an emergency services perspective, there are certain actions that one is expected to take in these situations. The circus skills I photograph require years of professional coaching and training. No one on the team showed up that day and decided to do something outside of their comfort zone.
Pryntz-Nadworny says that while he will call 311 in the future the next time he wants to photograph a circus friend in Rochester, the situation raises an interesting debate about what constitutes the need for approval.
“It was not a shoot with a paying client. Just a few friends getting some hopefully impactful footage. Do performers need a permit and call 311 before photographing their friends cartwheeling in the park, riding a unicycle or doing a backflip?
“It’s a nuanced conversation that really comes down to trust, skills, responsibility, perceived and real risks. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that in the United States most decisions are made out of fear, which causes so many people to experience fewer moments of beauty and wonder in their daily lives.
Picture credits: Photos by Avi Pryntz-Nadworny