04:09 AM

The photographer and the serpent handlers

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ask Lauren Pond to describe Pastor Mack Wolford, and “serpent handler” won’t be the first thing she mentions.

Pond, a photographer who spent six years documenting the life of Pastor Wolford and his family and church in rural West Virginia, talks about him as kind, humble and selfless – qualities he showed her many times, even though she was a nonreligious outsider in his community.

Mack is gone now, the victim of a snake bite that he received during a religious service that Pond photographed. He lives on, however, in Pond’s book Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation, a photo essay that offers an intimate portrait of Mack and his family.

The book documents serpent handling, of course, but it does more than that. It tells the story of how Mack’s death and Pond’s handling of it caused a rift in her friendship with the family, and how Pond received an unexpected gift of forgiveness and redemption. It rejects the caricature of serpent handlers as religious weirdos by vividly portraying the humanity of the Wolford family.

“Ever since I started photographing serpent handlers in 2011, I had been dreaming that my work would one day become a book – one that would provide a more nuanced portrayal of this religious community, which I had quickly grown to know and love, but which faces widespread derision and criticism for its seemingly outlandish beliefs,” Pond said in a recent talk at The Ohio State University.

“After Mack’s death, publishing a book had become an even more important goal for me, as I wanted to create something tangible for his family – something to help honor his life and beliefs.”

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Pond discussed her book, which she created as a freelance documentary photographer, at a November talk at the Ohio Union sponsored by Ohio State’s Center for the Study of Religion. Pond specializes in coverage of religion, and currently works as a multimedia producer at the Ohio State center, where she creates audio clips, collages and sound essays for the American Religious Sounds Project.

Pond says she often gets asked why she is so interested in religious experiences. She grew up in southern California in a family that was nominally Presbyterian, but which stopped going to church while she was still a child. Since then, Pond has considered herself nonreligious.

“I was naturally curious about a topic that was unfamiliar to me,” she said. “I wanted to understand what other people believed and why.”

Lauren Pond (Photo: Michael Bou-Nacklie)

During college, her interests took her to India and Senegal, among other places, to photograph religious groups and practices. She first read about serpent handling in 2010 and knew she wanted to learn more. In 2011, she drove to West Virginia – the only state where serpent handling remains legal – to see what she could find.

Serpent handling is practiced by a small Pentecostal Holiness sect in Appalachia that takes literally several verses in the Bible, Mark 16: 17-18. This passage reads: “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.”

Also known as Signs Followers, serpent handlers believe the bite of a venomous snake won’t harm them, if it is God’s will. When Pond first met Mack, he had already been bitten at least four times and recovered.

In May 2011, Pond received word of an upcoming serpent handling service at a public park near Jolo, West Virginia. There, she met Pastor Wolford. She watched and photographed the service from a distance, amazed at what she saw.

Mack picked up a yellow timber rattlesnake that he had named “Old Yeller,” and the snake wound its way around Mack’s body as he danced and preached. Mack had a look of joy and peace on his face the entire time, Pond recalled, and she was struck by the “electricity and benevolent energy” of the service.

“It was the very first time I had seen serpents handled, and I found myself mesmerized,” she said.

Pond returned to West Virginia several times and got to know Mack’s family, including his wife, Fran; his mother, Snook; his sister, Robin; and his nephew, Elijah.

“I started to see the Wolfords as people, not just serpent handlers – people to whom I could surprisingly relate. It was a relationship I looked forward to fostering further,” she said.

One year after she had met Pastor Wolford, Pond attended another outdoor service that would change her life, and the lives of the Wolfords, forever. From the beginning, something seemed off about this service in May 2012, she said. “The benevolent energy that I experienced the year before was no longer present, and in its place was an odd sense of urgency.”

During the service, while Pond was momentarily looking away, a quiet fell over the crowd. “He got bit,” someone whispered to her.

Pond continued to photograph as Mack became ill and had to sit down. Mack did not believe in seeking medical treatment for snakebites received during services. Like most serpent handlers, he thought it was up to God to decide whether he lived or died.

Later, Pond followed as family members took Mack to his mother-in-law’s house, where Pond expected he would recover, as he had from previous bites. As Mack became sicker in the summer heat, his family took his shirt off. Mack’s wife Fran asked Pond not to photograph Mack without his shirt on – a restriction that Pond didn’t understand – and later asked her to turn off her camera.

Without the ability to take photos and with no way to help Mack, Pond said she felt lost and powerless. Thinking she had a duty to keep telling the story, she eventually turned her camera back on and took a few images. Mack died later that night.

Shortly thereafter, the news of Mack’s death erupted in the media, and stories that Pond viewed as inaccurate and disrespectful began to circulate. She was contacted by editors at the Washington Post, who had heard she was at the service and wanted to publish some of her photos. Feeling like she had a responsibility to report on what had happened and help humanize the Wolfords, she agreed. She then made the mistake of agreeing to publish two photographs that showed Mack’s bare back, without understanding how these might impact Mack’s family.

The Wolfords were devastated by what they viewed as a betrayal of their trust, Pond said. What she hadn’t understood was how fundamental modesty is to Signs Followers, and how important it had been to Mack. The Wolfords were horrified that photos of Mack without his shirt on were made public.

“I had exposed his body to thousands of eyes, and had unwittingly caused his family enormous additional pain,” Pond said.

She was heartbroken and full of grief and guilt. Even years later, at the Ohio State talk, Pond’s voice broke as she described the family’s reaction. She was unsure if she would ever see the Wolfords again. But to her surprise, they invited her to a memorial service to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Mack’s death. Returning to see the Wolfords, Pond was overwhelmed by the forgiveness that they showed to her.

“In some ways, I could not believe they would forgive me. I’m still very critical of what I did, but they have moved on and embraced me again,” Pond said.

During her first visit back, she mostly avoided taking photos of people.

“I felt like I didn’t have the right to, having hurt them,” she said.

In later visits she began pulling out her camera – but with a new focus. “I tried to take photos that were meaningful to them, not just me,” she said.

She took one photo of Fran with a drawing of Mack. “She later told me that this was the only formal portrait she had of the two of them together,” Pond said.

The Wolford family’s forgiveness ultimately allowed Pond to understand the Signs Followers faith more deeply, and to document it in a more nuanced manner. In 2016, she applied for, and won, the prestigious First Book Prize in Photography from The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Honickman Foundation. With the blessing of the Wolfords, Test of Faith was published in November 2017 by Duke University Press.

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Isaac Weiner, co-director of the American Religious Sounds Project, hired Pond after learning about her work documenting the Wolford family and other faith communities. In introducing Pond at her Ohio State talk, he said he was struck by the way Pond didn’t try to sensationalize the religious practices that many others revile or mock.

“What is impressive about Lauren’s work is that it doesn’t start from a place of critique or judgment, but from a place of empathetic engagement,” Weiner said. She brings the same talents to her work at Ohio State, he said.

“Lauren has integrated sound and a keen ear into her repertoire, and does amazing work putting together images and sound to tell remarkably beautiful stories about the practice of religion in the United States,” he said.

Pond is finding a rich diversity of religious practice to document in the Columbus area. Recently, she recorded a Meskel celebration at Saint Michael Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in southeast Columbus. The service includes the burning of a large structure made of brush and foliage.

“The church is right by the highway, so you get the ambient sounds of cars rushing by and the crackling fire, along with the music and other sounds of the ceremony,” she said.

“What I’m most interested in when I record is not just the formal elements of religious services, but how they are intertwined with the everyday parts of our culture and American life.”

Pond said her experience photographing the Wolfords has shaped how she approaches both her photography and her audio-recording of religious experience. She now often takes a more ethnographic angle, immersing herself in communities and using her camera as a means to engage with those she documents.

“I don’t see myself as a traditional journalist anymore, who is supposed to be removed from the subject and totally objective,” she said.

“Instead, I try to be involved more with the people I’m documenting, to connect with them as fellow humans. I’m not participating in their rituals, but I’m part of their lives, in a sense.”

Today, Pond is still a part of the Wolfords’ lives. She has visited them over the Thanksgiving holiday the past several years, as well as other weekends, just to spend time with them. She still takes photographs, but it is no longer her main goal.

“When I started out, I never thought I would develop such a deep relationship with them. But now I see them as my extended family,” she said.