“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.”
For Pentecostal Signs Followers, better known as “serpent-handlers,” these verses in the Bible are to be taken literally. For more than a century, members of the uniquely Appalachian Signs Following religion have handled venomous snakes during their worship services, risking death as evidence of their unwavering faith. Curious about what motivates serpent-handlers to continue their potentially lethal practices through the generations, I began a documentary project about the Signs Following religion in 2011, when I met West Virginia Pastor Mack Wolford, one of the best known pastors in the region. By photographing Mack during both his worship activities and life outside of church, I sought to provide a more nuanced view of serpent-handlers and generate greater understanding about their contested beliefs.
The direction of my work changed dramatically on May 27, 2012, when Mack, 44, was fatally bitten by a rattlesnake during a worship service I attended. As a photojournalist and outsider, I felt it was not my place to intervene to save the pastor, who, like many serpent-handlers, did not believe in seeking medical attention for the bite. Instead, I watched Mack entrust his fate to God and die in front of friends, family, and my camera. In the years afterward, I found myself in a long, dark spiral of grief, shame, and guilt.
However, this traumatic experience has ultimately brought me closer to the Wolfords, and has helped me understand some of the tenets of the Signs Following faith – namely, forgiveness and redemption – on a much deeper, personal level.