Garin Horner has been exhibiting award-winning photography for over 25 years and has studied image-making with photographers Joel-Peter Witkin, William Wegman, Joyce Neimanas, Robert Fichter, and Barbara Kruger. Horner’s photography is in the collections of several museums including the University of Michigan Art Museum, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, and others. Horner’s photography has appeared in museums such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, The Cranbrook Museum of Art, and the Musee du Louvre, in Paris, France. Horner is also the author of The Photography Teacher’s Handbook: Practical Methods for Engaging Students in the Flipped Classroom and a co-author of Teaching Photography, 2nd Edition, and (both published by Focal Press).
A Photo-Ethnographic Study of Private Shrines & Altars
This body of work focuses on deep spiritual connections people have with private spaces and personal objects. These spaces and objects serve as focal points, where subjects feel strong links with transcendent beings, ethereal energies, and/or supernatural realities. Through devotion, presence, and attention, a practitioner’s altar objects become infused with one’s spiritual/life energy.
The people and altars in this project represent a diverse range of cultures, ethnicities, and individual spiritual belief systems, both within and outside mainstream religions. I network through spiritual communities and travel around the world to find subjects who are willing to be documented. The images are intimate representations, based on the idea that there are as many unique spiritual expressions as there are people.
The subjects I collaborate with are a combination of artists, performers, and spiritual practitioners who want to give voice to and celebrate their own distinct views within a multitude of spiritual beliefs. They are believers in a supernatural meta-ecology, or structure of subtle dimensions that co-exist with our reality comprised of various beings or forces.
Part of this view recognizes altars to be microcosms and/or nexuses of those subtle dimensions from which practitioners connect with higher powers, express their sense of connection, and gain spiritual nourishment.
See Stories Below:
Our Ancestors Guide Us and Protect Us
In a middle-class suburban house I met the woman that appears in the photo, I will call her Maria. Maria contacted me through a friend of a friend, wanting to know if I would be interested in photographing her ancestor shrine. As with most all my photo sessions, I traveled to the place, not knowing anything about the subject I am about to photograph. I don’t know what the shrine/altar looks like, the size of the room it’s in or the lighting situation. Because of this, I try to bring everything I might need to make the photos.
When I arrived at Maria’s home she welcomed me in and took me straight to her ancestral shrine. It was in a large room, fairly dark, with one window to the outside. As I was setting up my photo equipment, this is what she said:
“You think your ancestors aren’t hungry. You think they are just here for you to use or call upon whenever you need them (or to ignore completely). You want a better job, you want a better wife, you want…. You think you can call on them to save you from tedium. You are wrong. They need. They sometimes demand. And they care less for the polite gracias and de nada of their lives before. If you do not honor and give them food then they will take from you in other ways. Because it is your obligation to take care of those who made your life possible. You protect the way you have been protected.
“There is also love, there is la razón. You give la razón the same way it was given to you. Here in this moment, we stand with our abuelos, tios, y padres. And we give them light, incense, and attention. In this way, we offer happiness and love to the great debt we owe. Sometimes, in exchange, you can receive a gift. Pero, con cuidado. Con mucho cuidado. Better to simply, remember and offer. The remembrance must be offered to. The lineage continues and the manner in which you step up to it and not run or refuse to do your duty is up to you. The great responsibility of this life is the understanding of the long, long, long line (la línea larga) that extends before and beyond you. Take careful care of this line. It holds your life.”
Drive Deep the Magic Nail
As with many of my photos, I found out about this group of men through a woman who saw my work in an exhibition and sent an email with an address for one of the men in the group. She didn’t provide much of a description, other than she thought I’d be interested in this “spiritual group”.
I followed the lead with a request for information. I emailed a man named Mr. Carpenter. Mr. Carpenter and I emailed regularly over a two-year period before he invited me to photograph his group. But, it seemed like every time we would set a date for my travel, he would cancel. After each cancellation, we continued to talk over email. Finally, the day came when I traveled to the town near the group’s property. The plan was that I would meet Mr. Carpenter in town and he would drive me to the location. I met Mr. Carpenter at a small-town café for the first time in person and he was with a young man. The men asked me to sit in the back of their white van.
I sat in the back of the van and there were no windows except for the windshield. We drove for about 45 minutes before arriving at a dense forest area where I got out and was told to wait. I spent about 5 minutes unloading my photo equipment when several men came walking down a narrow driving carrying their altar. Other men came behind with hand trucks loaded with crates that were filled with jars of nails.
While I spoke with Mr. Carpenter the men set up the altar in a small clearing among the trees. Mr. Carpenter told me a little about this secretive group of men. Mr. Carpenter explained that they are part of a group that believes they can manipulate subtle energies with the assistance of iron, copper, aluminum or bronze nails. They view nails as conductors of unseen energies. By ritually preparing the nails and driving them into nexus points that can be found in our world, they are able to affect the outcomes of events in a wide variety of circumstances. This can include protection, healing, making deals, turning situations in your favor, and getting people to change their minds.
The masterful placement of nails is said to set events into motion or to prevent events from occurring. The group also seeks guidance through an accomplished teacher (pictured on the altar) who died in 1961. “Part of our belief is that in death, certain people are able to pierce the barrier and provide energy to us when it’s needed. This mystical tradition, thought very secret, can be seen throughout the world’s history. Some cultures have used knives, spears, and even tent stakes as metaphysical instruments for thousands of years. Our tradition is related to those traditions, except we use nails.”
The ceremonial act of driving nails into a tree, a root, a wall, the ground…etc. activates the energies imbued in the nail (or nails) in order to create the desired effect. Even body piercings are commonly used to promote health, strength, and metaphysical abilities among members of the group. Nails can be used to bind or unbind objects or energies. Driving, bending, or pulling nails all produce different results.
“Our hammers are our sacred tools, kind of like Mjölnir is to Thor. Though, he isn’t the focus of our activities or a God we ask for help. The idea of the hammer and spike as a tool, repeats across mythologies and religions. Whenever you see a nail, just know that it may not be just a nail.”
As for the goats, they didn’t mention anything about them and I didn’t ask.
A Collection of 216 Relics from the World’s Religions
I will call the man in this photo Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith requires that he remain anonymous though some know him as a collector of religious artifacts. There is no place on earth Mr. Smith will not go if he feels called to acquire an item that he’s looking for. I met this man through someone I met at a conference. The contact only told me they knew a person that had a large collection of spiritual objects stored in their house…in cigar boxes. The only problem, the person pointed out was Mr. Smith was somewhat of a recluse and probably won’t talk to me, let alone let me photograph him. I sent a request via a handwritten letter to a P.O. Box. And I waited for a few weeks.
Three weeks later I received a reply letter in the mail. The collector, Mr. Smith said that he was willing to be photographed in honor of his father, a prominent figure in the history of photography. I recognized the name immediately! In the letter, he included a phone number and asked me to call. This correspondence was in December of 2016. In June of 2017, I went to visit, not knowing whether the collection was 5, 10, or 100 items. As usual, I didn’t know what to expect.
At the head of his driveway was a gate with a large sign that said, no trespassing. On either side of the gate was a high stone wall that stretched out of sight to the left and right from where my car was sitting. The rusted hinges to the left side of the gate were attached to a field stone structure that was topped by a security camera. When I looked up to the left, the gates slowly opened.
The driveway was almost a mile long and looped at the end in front of a large residence. The timeworn building sat on a wooded estate where the trees came up close to the house. Moments after I stopped the car I was greeted by the home-owner, Mr. Smith. He seemed happy to see me and brought me straight into the small, dark room where there were stacks and stacks of wooden cigar boxes. There were also wine crates and other kinds of boxes. In the center of the room was a single wooden chair. “This room is full of spiritual energy”, he told me. “It’s a holy place, a crossroads for all kinds of gods, goddesses, and spiritual beings. I’ve made this place open and welcome all spiritual energies. No one would believe all the things I’ve been able to collect in these boxes.” Looking around, I replied “I understand that they are spiritual relics,” “Yes”, replied Mr. Smith, “They are special items from sacred sites all around the world. I have devoted my life to finding these artifacts and bringing them to my sanctuary. So far, I have cataloged 216 items.”
Mr. Smith put on a pair of white cloth gloves, opened a small box and took out a bottle that said, “Holy Water.” He carefully lifted the bottle to show me and said, “the water in this bottle is from an ancient baptismal site. I shouldn’t tell you who it was blessed by. People shouldn’t know about these items because they would be misused. I collect them to protect them.”
The Harvest Prayer
This photo was taken in the Fall of 2016 in a rural farming community. In a rented car, I drove for 4 hours past fields of soya beans and corn. When I arrived at the location I was shocked to see that the corn in the fields around my car was much taller than any corn I’d seen on my trip, almost 1/3 taller. At the intersection of two dirt roads I met this young woman who said, “Today I am the Corn Maiden and my job is to make sure that our harvest is abundant.” We walked on a narrow path through a cornfield to a clearing that was filled with ritual items. The Corn Maiden explained that what I was looking at was an altar that was part of the three-day ritual and that I had arrived on the third and final day.
I was told that over the three days she made “offerings of delights”. There are animal offerings, vegetable and fruit offerings, fire, and water offerings, flowers and corn offerings. The Corn Maiden lit something on fire in the caldron on the table as she sang a song. When smoke started rising, she posed in the way she wanted to be photographed. As the sun was setting she said that her family had been performing this ritual for many generations, even before her ancestors had come to America.
The ritual, I was told, is performed in the Fall in preparation for planting in the following Spring. So, it isn’t only for the harvest but, more importantly, is performed to sure the ground is fertile when the time comes to put the seeds in the ground. In the spring a much shorter version of the ritual is done to “awaken the blessings.”
The Corn Maiden learned from her grandparents that the harvest ritual was performed for hundreds of years in a village where her ancestors came from. She said that the ritual wouldn’t work unless she called upon on those ancestors to be present for the offerings, the songs, and the prayers. “We have five stalls at the farmer’s market and most of the time we sell out because certain people, our regulars, buy up all our produce. The farmers around us wonder how we are able to produce vegetables that are so big, beautiful, and delicious. They think we use Miracle Grow (she laughs). And, I guess we do! My family is part of this land and has been for generations. Our blood is in this dirt and the land is covered with the blessings we call down upon it.”
The young woman told me, “Everything depends on the harvest. We don’t use synthetic fertilizers or GMO seeds. We nurture the plants physically and spiritually. When we sing our songs it changes the cells in the plants, it makes them joyful, it makes them want to grow. When we eat the plants, we feel the same because we are eating blessings! When customers eat our vegetables they receive the same blessings we invited into the cells of these living plant-beings. People all around us fill themselves with blessings and they don’t even know it.” She paused, winked and said, “It will be our secret”.
Order of the Archangel
Members of this order convene in a barn structure that has been converted to look like a castle on the inside lower level. The walls in the interior are made of fieldstone and once through the door, it really does feel like you are in a castle, arched doorways, sconces, and tapestries. In-room at the far end of the building is the altar room where the Knights meet for vigils, ritual, and prayer.
The altar, as you can see, the bottom portion of the altar holds an effigy of a caged demonic creature. Wherever I walk in the room, he appears to be looking at me. The demon is reported to be confined by a circle of magical sigils. On top of the altar, directly over the head of the demon, is a statue of the Archangel Michael. One of the knights told me that they poured the statue with concrete and at its center is an important, powerful relic that came directly from the Archangel. And, it is the source of the power that flows through bodies, their armor, and their weapons. A Knight points out that in this day and age, “Our greatest weapons, as it turns out, isn’t our swords. It happens to be our laptops”.
The group says that their mission is to seek out and defeat forces of evil as they arise. I am told that every member of the order takes an oath to use their abilities for defeating evildoers and the rising tide of evil beings manifesting on earth. “We are part of an ancient lineage and our mission has always been clear”, one Knight tells me. They are soldiers under the command of the Archangel.
For the most part, the membership of this group is secret. These three representatives agreed to let me photograph them in their ritual chamber with the understanding that I will not reveal their names or the location of their temple.
To view more of Garin Horner’s work please visit his website.