It's Nice That
26 June 2023
by Daniel Milroy Maher
Robert LeBlanc photographs the last serpent handling church in West Virginia
Designed to emulate a real Bible, the LA-based photographer's new book documents the beliefs and members of The House of Lord Jesus in Squire.
For LA-based photographer Robert LeBlanc, taking the right photograph is like “landing a trick [on a skateboard] that I've been trying to land for months” — it takes patience and perseverance, but the payoff is worth it. Thankfully, these qualities come naturally to Robert, and the art of waiting has become an integral part of his practice. In fact, he’s made a name for himself through bodies of work that have taken years to complete and have required careful and attentive relationship building.
Nowhere else is this truer than in his recent project, Gloryland, which was released in January as a photo book, just a little over five years after he took the first photo. During this time, the images he captured were painstakingly crafted; the result of months and years spent trying to get closer to his subject. This was in part due to Robert’s preferred method of working, but it was also due to the fact that his subject was a particularly elusive one: The House of Lord Jesus in Squire, West Virginia.
“The House of Lord Jesus is one of the few churches practising serpent handling in the 21st Century,” he says. “It is a community deep in the Appalachian Mountains, and this region has [been through] a lot of struggle and hardship. However, the church still always seeks glory from God in their obedient practice and demonstrations of faith.”
Having already been turned away by churches in the past, building a relationship with this one necessitated slow, meaningful interaction, and Robert says it took a while before members of the church felt comfortable with his presence. But once they did, he was given a unique insight into an unusual church with a fading tradition. The practice of serpent handling is part of The House of Lord Jesus’ wider belief system, which centres around the King James Bible and the notion that “if the believers indeed contained the Holy Spirit within them, they could consume poison and handle fire and venomous snakes without harm”.
After winning the trust of the church, and the Wolford family that run it, Robert spent the next few years photographing their expressive sermons and their simple way of life. “The scripture is very exact to them, and they live by this mindset,” he explains. “So in their eyes, the way they live their lives is very black and white.” It is an understanding that has been handed down from generation to generation, and in Gloryland, this inherited responsibility can be seen in the monochromatic photographs of mother, son and grandson — each playing their part in public observation of their faith.
The book itself draws inspiration from this unfaltering devotion. Designed to emulate a real Bible, and printed using all of the same materials — from the textured leather cover to the scritta Bible paper — it is a testament to the people featured inside and the beliefs they hold so dear. Speaking on this, Robert says “A big part of this region is coal and talks about good and evil, right and wrong, and I wanted to illustrate a world drenched in coal and struggle, so I decided to make the exterior solid black. As a result, when you open the book, you have this nice contrast between black and white, representing this notion of right and wrong.”
However, beyond its aesthetic and symbolic power, the book also functions as an invitation to others to open their minds. Though many may turn their noses up at a book resembling a Bible, Robert says his high hopes for Gloryland is in its potential to facilitate connection and communication.
“Many people initially rejected the book because of its association with a church, which I found very foolish. Pre-judging people or groups without even knowing the story is a massive problem in America. Hopefully, people experiencing this book will be inspired to understand their neighbours more and explore communities they have never experienced. It's ok not to believe in the same thing, I don't believe in what the church believes, but I respect it and respect them.”
Gloryland is available to purchase through the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles and soon to be published and distributed in Europe through Setanta Books.