serpent handling

Looking at Appalachia | Hunter Barnes

I can thank Instagram and cell phone photography for leading me to the beautiful analog work of Hunter Barnes. I saw an image of Barnes' book, A Testimony of Serpent Handling, in someone's feed, Googled the photographer, and landed smack dab in the middle of this intimate and quiet work. I reached out to Barnes and asked if he'd be interested in collaborating on something for Looking at Appalachia and he agreed.

Barnes' project statement echoes many of the thoughts and emotions I've been unable to express in my own writing. Coupled with the photographs, I sensed an honesty that's hard to prop up for any length of time without being authentic. My hour-long conversation with him reinforced my initial sentiment; he's genuine.

From the project statement: "Where there is love and unity there is power. Feeling this is what has drawn me to document this in true belief. Within their church a clear path knowing ultimate freedom and victory over all things. Light felt so pure that shines beyond all. At a pivotal point in a new time proclaiming the word that has not changed. As to live what they know is undoubtedly right and not to tempt in disbelief. An old way for so many is passing, as lived strong for those who choose this way. Walking all verses and chapters of the King James Version to save a soul and enter the pearly gates. In these West Virginia mountains live and breathe the anointing, within the people who do not stray. Children of God who rise above in the ways of old. A family of faith who so graciously invited me in. Said to me of handling serpents, like all true love, the journey is one better felt than told."

A little over two years ago, Barnes ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for his book about the serpent-handling churches and faith community around Jolo, West Virginia. Barnes speaks fondly of his time in McDowell County, referring to the work as a family album, something he made with them. Pastor Mack "Randy" Wolford and Pastor Harvey Payne of the Jolo Church and his extended family set Barnes up with a camper, going so far as running a water hose and extension cords to it to make him more comfortable during his stay. (Wolford passed away from a rattlesnake bite in May 2012.)

What we see in these photographs, in these moments, is access to intimacy. Barnes noted that the only real thing Wolford expected in return was accuracy. He wanted to spread the word about his faith, but he wanted it done accurately. By all accounts, Barnes has done just that. As a native West Virginian, I'm often skeptical of anyone - either insider or outsider - who wants to photograph this practice. I even question my own motivations. What can I show that hasn't already been shown? I've yet to work that out in my practice, but Barnes has managed to celebrate this act of faith and obedience in a manner that is quiet, honest, and intensely beautiful.

All photographs © Hunter Barnes.

Review: Faith, Serpents, and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers


Hardcover| 9.5 x 9 inches | 128 pages | 88 black and white photographs University Press of Mississippi, 1999 | Scott Schwartz

"And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." Mark 16:17-18, King James Version

As far back as I can remember, well before picking up a camera, I've been fascinated by the serpent-handling faith. This religious tradition has long been ridiculed and used as an example to highlight the Appalachian backwoods stereotype. I've wanted to photograph these services for a while now and though I'm far from the religious upbringing of my Appalachian childhood, I look forward to making some pictures later this summer. Why? I'm simply fascinated by an obedience that would call one to take up a serpent as an act of worship. I'd like to photograph these services as a celebration of faith and tradition.

I picked this book up at the 2013 Appalachian Studies Conference in Boone, North Carolina. At the same time, I was reading Dennis Covington's fabulous 1995 book Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (which Schwartz lists in his bibliography). One of the more striking passages from Convington's book is below, and as a photographer, I've mentally substituted 'photographer' for 'writer' and found it to be especially true:

"I believe that the writer has another eye, not a literal eye, but an eye on the inside of his head. It is the eye with which he sees the imaginary, three-dimensional world where the story he is writing takes place. But is also the eye with which the writer beholds the connectedness of things, of past, present, and future. The writer's literal eyes are like vestigial organs, useless except to record physical details. The only eye worth talking about is the eye in the middle of the writer's head, the one that casts its pale, sorrowful light backward over the past and forward into the future, taking everything in at once, the whole story, from beginning to end."


Before I continue, I should let you know that if you're expecting technically superb, sharp images from Schwartz's book, you'll be sorely disappointed. What the book lacks in technical merit, it more than makes up for with the supplemental text and depth of the work in its entirety.

Schwartz notes in the introduction:

"The photographs were taken with 35mm, 400 ASA film, without flash, in an effort to intrude as little as possible upon the services. As a result, the film was "push-processed" two and three stops. The pronounced grain and the strient patterns of light in these images are the result of this process and of my desire to have the photographs represent the mood of the spiritual experiences. The photographs and essays record the complex and sometimes humorous social interactions that I encountered and provide an intimate glimpse into serpent-handling practices and beliefs, moving beyond the stereotypes of Appalachian snake charmers and fire eaters to illustrate the deeply personal and communal spirituality that is an integral element of the services."


It's clear to me that though Schwartz took a scholarly approach to the fieldwork conducted for this book, much like Covington's journalistic approach to Salvation on Sand Mountainboth men experienced far more than they bargained for. I don't think it was an accident that I discovered these two books at roughly the same time I'm doing prep work for my own experience with this community. Together, these books have helped reinforce my interest in the subject and my desire to add another voice to the conversation.

Schwartz writes, "Everything seems so natural, yet the media's blitz about a recent serpent-handling fatality paints a much darker and more sinister picture of these people. However, I am drawn by a brighter image." It's usually then, and only then, that the media's attention is on this tradition. It's important to note that this isn't a widespread Appalachian religious tradition contrary to popular belief. However, when there's a fatality, such as Mack Wolford's in West Virginia last year, the notion that serpent handling is a common part of worship in rural churches throughout Appalachia is once again perpetuated.


Another passage from Salvation on Sand Mountain:

"It's not true that you become used to the noise and confusion of a snake-handling Holiness service. On the contrary, you become enmeshed in it. It is theater at its most intricate - improvisational, spiritual jazz. The more you experience it, the more attentive you are to the shifts in the surface and the dark shoals underneath. For every outward sign, there is a spiritual equivalent. When somebody falls to his knees, a specific problem presents itself, and the others know exactly what to do, whether it's oil for a healing, or a prayer cloth thrown over the shoulders, or a devil that needs to be cast out."


If you'd like a chance to win a copy of Faith, Serpents, and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers, please leave your name, city, and state in the comments field by midnight EST, Friday, 26 April 2013. I'll select a winner at random the following day.