In a sparse congregation of West Virginia, photographer Hunter Barnes documented a Pentecostal sect that believes in snake handling and poison drinking as part of their services. Taking the King James Bible by its word, deadly serpents are taken up to testify on the verge of mortality.
Barnes is giving a talk on April 17 at the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan on A Testimony of Serpent Handling. The project and book are part of his ongoing process of plunging into overlooked cultures that are often treated as sensational curiosities rather than communities, such as the low rider car clubs of New Mexico, American Indian tribes on reservations, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
The dwindling “Church of God with Signs Following” religious subset takes this passage in the Book of Mark (16:17–18) as its instigation:
“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.”
As Barnes explains, he was invited in by a community “as one of their own” and was “shown a way of life sometimes unseen and able to share their story.” There’s a somber quiet to the black and white photographs, where the mason jars of poison and snakes resting coiled in their carrying cages are only a part of the portraits of these people.
Although that’s not to say there isn’t something captivating in those perilous moments. The pastor Barnes befriended — Mack Wolford (in the photograph at the top of this post) — died of a rattlesnake bite in May of 2012. In Barnes’ photographs of this vanishing religious extreme, when the rattlesnakes are wrapped around fingers it’s with an intense reverence conscious of the tightrope of life and death.