Mark Austin Meets Willa Mae: A Day with the Snake Lady

On an October day in 1997, photographer Mark Austin, ambled over to a nondescript home in East Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Mark had been invited by his friend, Tim Duffy, to meet some of the musicians from the area that Tim had befriended. When he walked inside, he met a tiny woman with a large personality, and two pet snakes twice her size. Her name was Willa Mae Buckner.

Where some might shy away from shock, Mark was immediately drawn in. Willa’s friend, musician Macavine Hayes, and Willa’s boyfriend, Rivers, joined in and the group soon started regaling the room with stories and songs. What followed was pure magic; Mark captured the spirit of the interplay between this unique cast of characters on film.

“I was fascinated by the fact that her dress and that snake were the same pattern, and by all her stories from the carnival,” says Austin. Buckner led an adventurous and colorful life, spending decades as a snake handler at traveling carnivals. Even once she left the circus, she kept her affinity for the slithering creatures.

Austin himself was no stranger to the carnival scene. He’d spent years working at carnivals, photographing the crews. During his travels, he befriended a man named Tattoo Joe, who was a tattoo artist and snake handler. Willa Mae was a friend of Joe’s as well, which gave Austin instant credibility in her eyes.

Willa’s snakes were her pride and joy. “She’d talk to them,” Austin chuckles. “Siam and Pépé. She slept with them. ​​It helped people to know not to mess with her.”

“We shot so much good film that day. You couldn’t take bad pictures. Really. I hate to even take credit for them,” says Austin. “It’s funny, I know a thousand people that are better photographers than I am, but they don’t put themselves in very interesting places. And the only reason my pictures are good is because I’m in places that most people don’t go.”