Test of Faith

Signs, Serpents, Salvation

Test of Faith

Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography

More about this series

Book Pages: 144 Illustrations: 96 color photographs Published: November 2017

Author: Lauren Pond

Contributor: Peter Barberie

Subjects
Art and Visual Culture > Photography, General Interest > NC and Regional U.S., Religious Studies

Pentecostal serpent handlers, also known as Signs Followers, hold a literal interpretation of a verse in the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark which states that, among other abilities, true believers shall be able to “take up serpents.” For more than a century members of this uniquely Appalachian religious tradition have handled venomous snakes during their worship services, risking death as evidence of their unwavering faith. Despite scores of deaths from snakebite and the closure of numerous churches in recent decades, there remains a small contingent of serpent handlers devoted to keeping the practice alive.

Who are the serpent handlers? What motivates them to continue their potentially lethal practices through the generations? Documentary photographer Lauren Pond traveled to West Virginia in search of answers to these questions. There she met Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford, one of the best-known Signs Following preachers in the region, and spent the following year documenting Mack and his family. The course of her work changed dramatically in May 2012, when Mack, then forty-four years old, suffered a fatal rattlesnake bite during a worship service she attended. Pond photographed the events that followed and has continued her relationship with Mack’s family.

Test of Faith provides a deeply nuanced, personal look at serpent handling that not only invites greater understanding of a religious practice that has long faced derision and criticism; it also serves as a meditation on the photographic process, its ethics, and its capacity to generate empathy.

Published by Duke University Press and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University

Praise

"Visually stunning.... Pond is deeply aware of the ethical quandaries of photographing a person while he is dying, which she writes about in a theologically provocative afterword. Her photographic eye is more compassionate than voyeuristic, and she captures something of the essence of Wolford’s faith even while hesitating to pin it down." — Christianity Today

"Open the book, and whether you are of faith or not, see what Pond came to see: people of faith, enduring to an end we all face. See sign followers seeking only to be obedient to their God. See people believing, loving and caring, backsliding and returning to be baptized again. And yes, dying. See people so human in their failings and need for re-baptism that a common saying among believers (however baptized) is that even the fish know who they are. Pond’s magnificent book will introduce them to you." — Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Reading Religion

"To move through this book is to feel the author unwind herself.  We feel her taking the measure of the space in which her subjects live.  Services that were once photographed as delirious frenzy are now shown as infused with calm, though no less ecstatic.  We get a sense that Pond has arrived somewhere very different than where she sought to go when she began, and it also feels like the beginning of a larger story." — Leo Hsu, Fraction Magazine

"Capturing the true essence of this type of religious phenomenon is delicate. One must balance scene with sensitivity. Pond's work in Test of Faith is a well-blanced blend of both qualities. . . . She invites viewers, through her photography and dialogue, to embark on a journey to understand more deeply the people who take on these acts of faith and who choose to live within a particular lifestyle." — Chelsie Dubay, Journal of Appalachian Studies

"Lauren Pond's beautifully intimate portraits of spiritual yearning and loss should be reminders to all the rest of us that 'feeling after God' is dangerous business and was never intended to be otherwise." — Dennis Covington, author of Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia


"Mack Wolford and his family are holiness people who take up serpents as a simple act of obedience based upon their understanding of the Gospel of Mark. Lauren Pond's wonderful photos are visual windows into their lives. They may test your own faith. No holiness handler would urge you to violate your own faith. All would urge you simply to pray for, and perhaps, like Lauren, with, those whose faith seems distant from your own." — Ralph W. Hood Jr., Professor of Psychology and LeRoy A. Martin Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga


“Lauren Pond plunges us into the hothouse atmosphere of the Wolfords' faith. Through her photographs, I can almost feel the physical strain of Mack's worship, and I long to hear the song that his mother, Snook, sings as he accompanies her on guitar. Who are these purposeful, vibrant people so different from myself? Test of Faith commands this question and prompts me to consider the basis and limitations of my own worldview.” — Peter Barberie, prize judge and Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center, Philadelphia Museum of Art


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Lauren Pond is an award-winning freelance photographer based in Columbus, Ohio, the manager of the Fresh A.I.R. Gallery, and a multimedia content producer for the Center for the Study of Religion at Ohio State University. Pond earned a B.S. and B.A. at Northwestern University in 2009 and an M.A. from Ohio University in 2014. Her photographs have been seen in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States and in Australia. Pond has also spoken extensively on her work at academic conferences and universities in the United States.

Peter Barberie is the Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 2014, Barberie organized the exhibition Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography, an in-depth retrospective of Strand’s photography and films that has traveled internationally. He also organized the exhibition Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, a major mid-career survey of Strauss’s photography. Barberie has written widely on contemporary art and received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2007.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Peter Barberie
Photographs and Text / Lauren Pond
Afterword / Lauren Pond
Acknowledgments
About the Prize
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