Lauren Pond, a staff multimedia producer in the Center for the Study of Religion, won the 2016 Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography for her color series, Test of Faith. Her photography project, in progress since 2011, documents a family of Pentecostal serpent handlers in West Virginia. In fall 2017, Pond’s photographs and narrative essay will be published in a book by CDS and Duke University Press.
Serpent handlers, also known as Signs Followers, hold a literal interpretation of a verse found in the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark, which states that true believers “shall take up serpents.” During their worship services, once they feel protected by God, Signs Followers handle venomous snakes, including rattlesnakes and copperheads. Most do not believe in seeking medical attention if they are bitten. Serpent handling is primarily an Appalachian tradition, but it is illegal everywhere in the region except for West Virginia.
How did you become interested in serpent handlers for your photo project?
In 2010, I took an anthropology class, and one of the articles we were assigned to read discussed serpent handling in the United States, which intrigued me. In 2011, I traveled to southern West Virginia, where I eventually met Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford. Although initially I just documented worship services, I soon broadened my scope to document the intersection of faith and culture in the lives of Mack and his family.
What was the most significant part about this project?
The most significant part is definitely my relationship with Mack’s family members, whom I now see as members of my own family. Although I started this project from a journalistic perspective, it became deeply personal when Mack died from a snakebite in 2012. The experiences that the Wolfords and I have shared over the years, including Mack's death and its aftermath, have given me a deeper understanding of the tenets of their faith, as well as helped me see past some of our ideological differences.
I have also learned to see photography in a different way:
The camera does not have to be just a tool for documentation, but can serve as a tool for greater intercultural dialogue and understanding.
Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford
Did the snakes ever frighten you?
Not really. I think this is partly because the camera sometimes gave me the illusion of being separated from the situation. Also, when the snakes are handled, they often seem to go limp and become non-aggressive.
What did you learn from this project?
The entire six years of this project have been an immense learning process. I do feel like I’ve gained a much more nuanced understanding of serpent handling. I’ve also gained deeper insights into myself, and into the practice of photography.
Staff member Lauren Pond followed Pentecostal serpent handlers, creating an award-winning photo series #ASCDaily
By Samantha Ruwe, ASC Communications Student