Peering into the Wall of Death
By John Kolesidis
I’m a huge fan of motorbikes and I’ve been riding since I was 20. I love the speed. I watch MotoGP racing religiously and I certainly don’t scare easy, either as a driver or a passenger. But I cannot say the same for the first time I saw the “Wall of Death”.
After a two-hour trip some 150 km (93 miles) northeast of the capital Athens, I arrived in Mantoudi, a small village where stuntman Akis Andreou would perform his final motorbike stunts in the “Wall of Death,” a narrow, wooden, barrel-like structure, before taking the show to Athens.
After I met him, he offered to do some rounds just for me so that I could get used to it, as he said, before taking pictures. He asked me to go to up to the stands where the audience usually sits and stressed that I should be careful and keep my hands off the barrel.
Without finding a reason for this personal show and with a slight sense of arrogance, I went up and I waited. Darkness had fallen outside and the relatively dimly lit barrel created in me a feeling of claustrophobia and of anticipation – the barrel is just 5.5 yards high and has a diameter of only 9 meters. I pulled out my camera and glued myself against the barrel. Akis turned the key and a deafening sound flooded the space. As he began whirling furiously, the barrel’s wooden planks began to shake one after the next, just like piano keys. My pulse began to rise rapidly. I leaned in and focused on a point in the middle, where I expected he would appear in the next round, so I could photograph him.
Only that never happened.
With a quick throttle, he rode almost vertically up against the barrel, found himself at the top end and, as I was looking through my lens, his front wheel filled my wide-angle. The bike was just inches away from my head and the whole barrel shook. My blood froze and I instinctively jumped backwards.
Then, from a safe distance, I looked at Akis who was standing upright on his bike, arms raised and wide open. In his face there was no tension, no agony. He made it look so easy.
I had no idea how I would manage to photograph the actual show. In fact, it turned out to be very difficult and my own fear was the last thing on my mind. Conditions were tough – the lighting was low and the speed at which he moved – about 50 km/per hour (30 miles/hour) was, as Akis explained, closer to 100 km/per hour (60 miles/hour) because of the rotational movement in such a small space. To “freeze” this image, the shutter speed on my camera rose to 1250 per second and the sensitivity at 12500 ISO.
The experience was amazing. But I got the strongest emotion from watching the people in the crowd, who would scream, cross themselves and tell Akis at the end of every show: “Aren’t you afraid, man?”, “Thank you for the experience”, “May God be with you.”