In 2011, Lauren Pond began documenting a community in West Virginia, where Pentecostal serpent handlers, known as Signs Followers, practice the religious tradition of holding venomous snakes during their worship services. Her images are collected in a new book, Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation, published recently by Duke University Press and the winner of their Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize. Writes Pond in an afterword in the book, “There was something raw and mysterious about serpent handling that awakened my curiosity, and the more I read about the practice, the more I wanted to know.” The book tells the dramatic story of what she witnessed following a pastor, Randy “Mack” Wolford, one of the best-known Signs Following preachers in the region.
Through connections she made in a West Virginia town, Pond was invited to an outdoor revival where Wolford preached. She made photographs of the intense service that went on there, as Wolford held one of his rattlesnakes, Old Yeller. She also photographed a service in his church, full of music and prayer, and followed his life outside of the church, documenting the home he shared with his wife, the spare bedroom where he kept his snakes, and music-filled Bible study sessions with his mother at her house. The following year, Wolford invited Pond to another outdoor service. Writes Pond, “Though the dangers of serpent handling were obvious, I had never imagined that I would witness a serious bite or thoughtfully considered what I would do in the situation.” When Wolford was bitten during the service, she continued photograph, recording his sweaty collapse and the concern of his family and followers, who brought him to his mother-in-law’s home and prayed for his recovery. (Most serpent handlers refuse medical treatment for snake bites as a part of their faith.) He died before the next day. After some bitterness about Pond’s decision to publish her images and write about her experience in the media, Wolford’s family eventually embraced Pond and invited her to return and continue her work. “They were now focused on honoring Mack’s memory,” she writes. In the images she made after his passing, Pond shows his extended family as they care for each other and worship, traveling to other communities and “searching for another church that they could call home.”
The book presents Wolford’s story as a nuanced and personal exploration of the role of faith in his life and community. Writes Pond, “I was quick to embrace a simple hypothesis: that connecting with God and taking up serpents was this community’s way of defying death, of reclaiming a certain vitality that almost had been extinguished. From where I stood as an outsider, serpent handling seemed to serve as a beacon of light in the encroaching darkness.”
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Lauren Pond Wind CDS/Honickman First Book Prize for Project About Pentecostal Snake Handlers (for PDN subscribers; login required)