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Gem Fletcher and Ken Hermann: Wall of Death

Work / Photography

Gem Fletcher and Ken Hermann shoot death-defying Indian tradition The Well of Death

Art director Gem Fletcher spends her days working with photographers on commercial, editorial and personal projects. As Photo Director at Riposte magazine, Gemma has been responsible for some of the publication’s most memorable editorial commissions, among them the cover of sex educator and performer Ericka Hart and writer, host and trans activist Janet Mock.

Lately, Gem has been throwing caution to the wind at the side of photographer Ken Hermann. Together, the pair travelled to India for Lucy Pike at WeTransfer to document The Well of Death, which Gem describes as a “high-octane, low-tech entertainment where cars and motorbikes roar around the vertical sides of a 60ft wooden cylinder”.

Where did you first learn about the Well of Death?
We found an old archival image of the Well a couple of years ago, it was completely captivating and we knew we wanted to make a project about it. We did some initial research, but then parked it due to other commitments. We kept coming back to it every couple of months, it was a story that really stayed with us and eventually decided to go for it.

What can you tell us about the history of the Well?
The Well of Death is a travelling Indian tradition – high-octane, low-tech entertainment where cars and motorbikes roar around the vertical sides of a 60ft wooden cylinder. There are fewer than 40 wells in India and they travel for 11 months of the year touring different carnivals and fairs across the country.

Safety precautions are not observed so it’s exceptionally high risk for the drivers. Due to this, some states are starting to ban it and it’s likely to decline and eventually die out in the next decade.

We collaborated with a well based in Solapur, about eight hours from Mumbai. It was a small town, off the tourist track. The perfect place for us to immerse ourselves in the culture.

Tell me about the riders you met there…
We worked with eight riders but focused our project on Radha, one of very few female drivers.

The riders and crew operate as a family unit. They live and work in the close quarters, sleeping in tents on the grounds around the well. They have a really close, supportive relationship where everyone looks out for each other. It’s a great atmosphere.

How do riders learn the skill of riding?
Radha started riding at thirteen. Mesmerised by the stunts she saw performed in her local fair in Delhi, became determined to become a daredevil. Trying to gain access into a macho sport in a patriarchal society was a challenge, but she stayed focused and is now one of the most renowned female riders in the country.

What is the response of locals to the Well of Death?
The well is adored by locals, drawing huge crowds day and night. It’s an event, which attracts every age group, and the riders are looked upon as true heroes. The drivers really vibe off the crowd and their stunts get more crazy, the louder the crowd go. The crowd also entice the drivers to the top edge of the well by dangling rupees.

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Gem Fletcher and Ken Hermann: Wall of Death

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Gem Fletcher and Ken Hermann: Wall of Death

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Gem Fletcher and Ken Hermann: Wall of Death

Practically speaking, what did shooting at the Well involve?
The most challenging part of the production was access. It’s quite a closed community and trying to find a well open to us shooting for several days was a challenge. We had several fixers helping us on the ground and our well only got confirmed a week before we were due to shoot.

Once we were there, the crew were really excited about the attention and being part of the project. The manager was really accommodating and did everything he could to support our work.

Having worked together before, Ken and I are attuned to working fast and hard in high-pressure environments. We spent the first day getting to know the drivers and crew and reccing around the well to find interesting locations.

A lot of the shots demanded us to be standing in the base of the well while the riders drive round. This took some getting use to, as it was a complete sensory overload. The fair is deafening with hundreds of sound systems in a space not much bigger than a football pitch. Coupled with the roar of the bike engines and the overwhelming smell of gasoline and sugar, which scents the air, it was often difficult to think straight. Despite the challenges it was an incredible experience.