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The Book Column : Robert LeBlanc : Gloryland


In the heart of the Appalachian, amidst the dense forests of West Virginia, stands one of the last churches practising the deadly tradition of snake-handling. Within its walls, believers handle venomous snakes as an act of faith. American photographer Robert LeBlanc paints a striking account of this devotion in his latest book, Gloryland.

 Gloryland was conceived like a bible. A pitch-black replica filled with black-and-white photographs punctuated only by a purple ribbon bookmark. The first pages show landscapes so dark they seem to be covered in coal, a somber allusion to the decline of the coal industry that plunged the region into poverty. Between the trees, we see ruins of metal infrastructures and abandoned houses.

Large white crosses and numerous churches are scattered along the serpentine roads linking the region’s few towns. « For every ten homes, there seems to be a church » describes the photographer in his introductory words. He focused on the village of Squire and the House of The Lord Jesus Pentecostal church, where the charismatic pastor Chris Wolford leads spectacular services.

Interweaving his photographs with extracts from VHS recordings from the late 1990s, Robert LeBlanc show us parishioners singing and dancing in ecstasy before falling to their knees, bending over the pews in prayer. During these trance-like moments, some place a healing hand on a tormented forehead while others speak in tongues. A few believers hold flames close to parts of their bodies or drink poison. All to the sound of loud guitars playing melodies somewhere between delta blues and bluegrass.

The climax comes when Chris Wolford takes a rattlesnake out of a wooden box and holds it up to the audience. Some of the devotees grab hold of the reptile. In this way, they are proving their faith but also putting it to the test : if they are bitten, they won’t accept any medical attention as God should heal them… provided they are good believers.

« 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 », claims this verse from the Gospel of Mark. These few words are the origin of the practice of snake-handling. A practice that has caused around a hundred deaths and led to it being outlawed in most Appalachian states, except for West Virginia.

During the five years he spent photographing the community of the House of The Lord Jesus, Robert LeBlanc never took a critical stance towards it. His book is an intimate and sympathetic account of a region left for dead by the coal crisis. Abandoned by a system that pumped their land’s resources for decades, its people turned to God: “I came to understand why the Appalachians have this mystic quality. They’re full of love and compassion… you just have to sift through all the coal dust to find it.”

Zoé Isle de Beauchaine


Robert Le Franc – Gloryland
2023, Setanta Books
18.5 x 13 cm, 378 pages
In all good bookstores or online

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