The “Well of Death” is a fairly well known carnival show in India. Spectators pay 40 rupees ($0.75 AUD) to see drivers climb the well’s 20-metre wooden slopes. Then the drivers climb outside the cars while rocketing around in tight circles, 20 times a day, for 11 months of the year.
Photographer Ken Hermann and art director Gemma Fletcher documented a group of riders at the Solapur fair. We spoke to Ken to find out more about this travelling tradition, its presence in Indian culture, and the how these drivers manage the constant threat of death and injury.
VICE: Hi Ken, tell me about the carnival group you followed.
Ken Hermann: The group was formed four years ago. They're headed by a guy we called the “Boss Man.” He was a mechanic and riders used to come to him for repairs and maintenance, which gave him a kickstart in the industry so he decided to purchase a transportable well. Most of the group’s members are from a province in Northern India called Uttar Pradesh. We were with them at the Solapur fair, but after that they went to Markanda. They’re now performing in the state of Maharashtra.
We see similar kinds of stunts in the US and Europe. What makes the Indian version different?
The main difference is that safety isn’t an issue. They don't wear helmets, but having said that, the female driver [Radha], who we were focusing on, she's been driving for 20 years without a single accident. So it's not safe but if you know what you're doing, I think you can manage it.
Do drivers ever die?
None of the riders have died but there have been injuries. There was one incident in 2016, where a car turned upside down during a show.
What was the single most shocking thing you saw while following the carnival?
Maybe it was when the female driver [Radha] got up onto the roof of the car and held on while driving. That was scary. But I think the most shocking thing for me was standing inside the well while three or four cars roared around above me. The sound was unbelievable and there was just so much noise and pollution, because there’s no wind inside the well. I felt a bit paranoid—like what if a car just fell on my head?
Out of all the people that you met, whose story resonated with you the most?
I think it was Radha’s because in the beginning the boss didn’t want her to drive. He didn’t believe she could do it because she was only 13 at the time. He told her to go back to her parents and ask for permission. So she did, they said yes, and then she did a test run. The boss could tell that she meant it and was able to do it. And today she gets paid a little bit more because she attracts a larger audience.
Why does she get a larger audience?
Well I thought maybe they wouldn’t respect her as much because she was a woman, but in fact it was almost the opposite. She was very respected by the others, and they really looked after her. I think a lot of the audience are men because it's dangerous and there are engines and all that. Maybe that’s why you don't find many female drivers and it’s unique to see Radha.
How prominent are these wells in India? Are they still popular?
Some states have started to ban them. They can't run in Delhi anymore and I think it's just a matter of time until they’re banned throughout the whole country. There are not as many running wells as there used to be. Maybe another part of that is it takes them a week to set up, and then it runs for 10 days, and they have to take everything down again, and move on to the next place. It's basically an old traditional circus and they live on the road for 11 months of the year.
Do you think it’s a shame that this form of entertainment is dying? Do you think the danger is worth the entertainment value?
Yeah, I think it is. These people choose to do what they do. Maybe they should consider wearing helmets though. Some of the motorbikes look really rubbish. Because between each show there’s a sort of flight mechanic who checks each bike to make sure they can run. It looks like a big mess but underneath, they know what they’re doing. I think driving a car on an Indian road is a bigger risk than driving in the well. I regret not trying to drive in there myself, because I got the opportunity while I was there. Not on the back of the motorbike, but just in the car. And I foolishly said no.
For more photos and info check out Ken and Gemma's site here.