Pentecostal serpent handlers, also known as Signs Followers, hold a literal interpretation of a verse in the Bible’s Gospel of Mark, which states that true believers shall “take up serpents.” For more than a century, adherents to this Appalachian religious tradition have handled venomous snakes during worship.
Who are the serpent handlers? What does their faith mean to them? A documentary photographer who specializes in religion, I traveled to West Virginia in search of answers. There, I met Pastor Mack Wolford, a Signs Following preacher, and spent the following year photographing Mack and learning about his beliefs. My work changed dramatically in May 2012, when Mack suffered a fatal snakebite during a worship service I attended. I documented the events that followed and have continued my relationship with Mack’s family.
In my performance, I will present my photographs of Mack and his family; I will also discuss the experiences I have shared with the Wolfords and what these have taught me about the photographic process and the tenets of the Signs Following faith – namely, forgiveness and renewal. Lastly, I will explain the process of editing my work into a book, Test of Faith, published by the Duke Center for Documentary Studies in November 2017.
My performance will provide a nuanced, personal look at serpent handling, inviting greater appreciation of an Appalachian practice that has long faced derision and criticism. It will also suggest how photography may be used as a form of dialogue to foster empathy and understanding within Appalachia.