I just returned from a great weekend at the 35th Annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference, which was held at Indiana University in rural Pennsylvania. The event brought together scholars, students, artists, musicians, and others to discuss Appalachian history and culture.
My colleague, Julia Duin, and I attended the conference to present some of the work we’ve been doing about Pentecostal Signs Following churches in West Virginia and Tennessee. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “Signs Following” generally means that a church observes the controversial practices of serpent-handling and poison-drinking, among others, all in accordance with a very literal interpretation of the New Testament Book of Mark. Last year, Julia and I noticed that this particular sect of Pentecostalism was dying out in its one of its traditional West Virginia hotspots, but seemed to be flourishing among young people in other Appalachian states, including Tennessee.
I met some wonderful people at the conference who gave me new insights into Appalachian culture and religion. However, for me, the most meaningful moment of the weekend occurred during our presentation, when members of the audience suggested that Julia and I were taking a rather stereotypical approach in our coverage of the Signs Following faith. Many of the images I presented depicted only the practice of serpent-handling, which has been sensationalized for years.
Honestly, the main reason most of my images in this presentation showed just serpent-handling is that I’ve only visited the Tennessee church once, and I haven’t had the opportunity to gather additional material. I’m visiting the young pastor, Andrew, again this week.
But there is a bigger issue at hand, I’ve realized. It’s not that we in the media are trying to stereotype serpent-handlers or members of other faiths in news coverage, but oftentimes, there just aren’t enough funds or time to support more comprehensive documentary projects. I’ve been fortunate to be able to devote a fair amount of time to my photo stories.
As a result of the feedback we received, I came away from the ASA conference with a new goal: To find a way to enable journalists like myself to complete longer-term stories about religious issues, ensuring that different faiths receive the comprehensive, informed coverage they deserve.
A couple of photos from the conference (the first shows a small display of some of my photographs; the second was taken during a presentation about Appalachian storytelling and folklore):