Photographer Ken Hermann captures the thrills and perils of death-defying feats performed in the well of a Motordome in Solarpur India. With unparalleled access, the photographer spends a week with a ‘fairground family’ documenting the energy and danger in the vortex of the “Well of Death”.
The rumble of exhausts mingles with the murmur of the crowds as they climb up the stairs to viewing platforms some six meters in the air. The crowd roar as the riders start their ascent, pushing the rasping engines of their bikes and cars further and faster around a rickety, barrel-shaped metal cage known as the motordome . Hundred line the well, dangling rupees before the drivers and cajoling the showmen to reach higher limits of the dome. The vehicles become a blur as the riders risk their life for the thrill of the crowd. With the nomadic lifestyle of its daredevil riders, photographer Ken Hermann spent years hunting down the travelling spectacle. Finally catching up with them in Solapur, India, he spends a week with a ‘fairground family’ to document and uncover the story behind the “Well of Death”.
The barrel shaped metal cage is a travelling spectacle, imported to India in the 60’s from both the US and UK. Now nearly non- existent in the West, these ramshackle 60 foot cylinders are one of the main attractions in the Indian fairgrounds that thousands flock to every week
Originally dominating the Western fairgrounds of the early 20th century, motordomes were a novel, daredevil sport that were installed along the piers of Coney Island, Brighton Pier and other glittering fairgrounds. However their popularity waned as audiences clamoured for video games, and the wells were eventually shut down for health and safety. Spreading to other parts of the world the wells reached for higher heights, more dangerous stunts to impress.
Ken Hermann, Photographer
I knew it was going to be tricky, in technical terms but I wasn’t prepared for the surroundings.
“Motorbikes and cars going 100km/h round in a barrel, I knew it was going to be tricky, in technical terms but I wasn’t prepared for the surroundings” says photographer, Ken Herman. “It was loud, like really really loud… and there’s no air inside the well, so it’s very polluted. And then you have three cars and four motorbikes driving vertically above your head. It’s a challenge to stand inside it”. Riders often customise their bikes making the exhausts louder to draw attention and make the already dangerous stunts seem more threatening.
He told me I couldn’t do it, that I would fail.
One of the most daring of the riders is Radha, “she definitely draws a crowd” says Hermann. After visiting the well at a local festival as a girl Radha became determined to be a rider. Age 13 she left her home and stood in front of the well manager asking to become a part of the circus. “He told me I couldn’t do it, that I would fail” says Radha, but determined and mesmerised by what she had seen Radha persisted “He told me that he needed permission from my parents, and if anything went wrong he wasn’t responsible. I came back the next day”. In a patriarchal society where woman are often limited to traditional roles, Radha is now one of the most renowned female riders, paid three times that of her male colleagues.
Ken Hermann, Photographer.
There is trust between them… they’re very aware of each other. They’re like a family.
The team of riders come from across India, gathering together, living and touring like a family for 11 months of the year. “They risk their lives together, so there is trust between them… they’re very aware of each other. They’re like a family” says Hermann. Performing up to twenty shows a day, the routine dulls the danger for the performers but ultimately “it is risky” says Hermann, “They need to run between 80 – 100km/h to get the centrifugal force needed, and it’s like 6 metres in the air, so if you crash you can get pretty badly damaged”. With performers having died in the past wells are becoming more and more restricted as well as illegal in many states across India. Living on borrowed time the performers carry on, as Radha says “I feed off the energy of the crowd, they fuel my performance”.
Ken Hermann is a Danish photographer who travels the world to document his subjects. Well of Death is a collaboration between Ken Hermann and Creative Director Gem Fletcher, the pair are currently working on a book about the subject and have created a short film on the Well Of Death. You can watch the film here.