Two years ago when Hunter Barnes travelled to one of the last remaining churches that handles serpents, the church’s leaders questioned whether Barnes was the right man to document a potentially deadly demonstration of faith that only remains legal in West Virginia.
“They didn’t necessarily know if they’d let me take pictures initially,” Barnes said at the opening reception for his Milk Gallery exhibition “A Testimony of Serpent Handling.” “But they said if I wanted to go to church then come on out, and I did.”
“One of the pastors of the church, Randy Wolford, him and I became really great friends. He said he wanted somebody to [photograph the church] but he wanted it to be done accurate and truthful and right and he felt that I was the one to do that. So they invited me in and treated me like family.”
For more than a month Barnes lived among the small Pentecostal community, and in his black and white photographs unfold a seldom-seen world where people interpret the King James Bible literally and test their faith in God by drinking strychnine -- a toxic chemical used in rat poison -- and handling deadly timber rattlesnakes.
In several photographs from the collection, reverence and joy are etched onto Pastor Wolford’s face as he lifts a coiled serpent into the air during an outdoor service. Behind him, church members play music on a keyboard and electric guitar that Barnes describes as “Nashville meets Gospel stomp.” On another wall of the exhibition, an 8mm video recording shows Wolford and a woman stomping their feet to the music and twirling in circles, appearing as though they don't have a care in the world. This same video was put on Kickstarter earlier this year in hopes to raise money for Barnes' exhibition and the printing of his book.
Though Barnes said several of the photos hold special significance for him, he singled out a portrait of his friend Wolford, who died earlier this year from a snake bite he received during a festive service the day after his 44th birthday. I asked Barnes if he was ever tempted to try serpent handling.
“It’s a very sacred thing, it’s a very powerful thing and it wasn’t my time to do it right then. I feel like I was there to take these photographs and share them with people.“
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