For more than a hundred years, traveling carnivals have roamed the American landscape from spring to fall. Many point to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair as their catalyst. Powered on a novel use of electricity, it introduced 25 million ticket-holders to the first great Ferris wheel, which soared 250 feet in the air. Less than a decade later, the first documented traveling carnival opened its debut show in Chillicothe, Ohio, according to Bruce Caron’s book Inside the Live Reptile Tent.

Intrigued by the enduring mystery of carnival culture, photographer Eric Kruszewski wanted not just to shoot the carnival, but to experience it from the inside. In 2011, a friend introduced him to the Davis family, who for several generations have operated Davis Amusement Cascadia throughout the western U.S. He spent time with them near their Las Vegas base and at several carnival sites. Over dinner, the workers talked about their kids; over beers, they argued about football. While strolling through the grounds, they discussed business.

For that entire summer, Kruszewski’s job was to transport the ice cream parlor. He documented life as a “carny” in off hours. His photography blends the poeticism of the lit-up carnival with the reality of the road, where hard work and family living combine.

Workers are usually assigned to a specific ride, food stall or game for the week’s duration, typically working from noon to midnight.
After rides are erected, workers use the trailers as shelter.
Carnival workers are trained to “bark”: entice passers-by with a phrase or action. Here, a game operator strategically knocked over some balls and asked the boys to help pick them up. As the boys come closer, he will try and get them to play.
1: Working on the carnival rides can be dangerous. This man awaits a ride to the hospital after he accidentally dropped a 70-pound metal panel on his toe. 2: On the road, a good shower is usually hard to come by.
Carnival workers setup a ride called the “Ice Storm.” Teamwork and communication are essential to preclude an accident from happening.
1: The tractor-trailer is outfitted with eight individual rooms that act as sleeping quarters and living areas. This married couple shares one of the rooms. 2: Workers usually purchase non-perishable foods for “carny cookouts”.
Carnival workers often travel with their families.
For each new ride sequence, carnival workers try to create an air of enthusiasm amongst the carnival goers.
A carnival worker uses her rare free time to traverse an open field towards a nearby river. Her air mattress will soon double as a floating raft.
As the carnival’s Ferris Wheel is dismantled, the daughter of two carnival workers sits in a van and awaits the journey to the next location.

Top image: A man prepares for bed in his tent while the Ferris Wheel illuminates the surrounding area.

You can see more of Eric Kruszewski’s work on his website, or on Instagram and Twitter.