It’s been a whirlwind of a few months since I last posted. Much of what’s happening has been exciting: book talks, several photo exhibits, and a few book reviews and features (view a list here). I also recently opened an exhibit at the Martin de Porres Center about religious diversity in Ohio (read a feature in the Columbus Alive).
But this winter brought some unanticipated challenges, as well – also related to the book.
I knew, of course, that the publishing process was going to be difficult. In producing Test of Faith, I would be developing an expressive form for a story important in both my life and the lives of the Wolfords, the family of Pentecostal serpent handlers I have known and photographed for six years. I would need to present my work in a way that was sensitive and meaningful to multiple audiences. And, in the process, I would also be dredging up traumatic memories, meditating on some heavy ethical questions, and editing through thousands of images.
It was an immense undertaking, but one that I was mostly prepared for – and thankfully, one that I was able to get through, with the support of the staff at the Center for Documentary Studies, and of friends, family, and colleagues.
But what I didn’t expect is what would come afterward. The book – the object that I poured my energy, blood, sweat, and tears into for the better part of a year – is now gone, living out in the world. I feel a lingering emptiness, of sorts, like a piece of me is missing. At times, I’ve felt very adrift.
What to do now? How do I find and ground myself again?
In search of answers, I’ve picked up my camera. I’ve been back to visit the Wolfords twice since the book’s publication, including over Thanksgiving, when I got to meet a new baby in the family, Samuel Eli. Our friendship and mutual healing process continues.
In January, I received a surprise email from an Episcopal Benedictine monk residing at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. He’d read about Test Of Faith and was interested in my approach to documenting faith communities outside of the mainstream, such as his own. He wrote: “Our chosen way of life, to most outsiders, is rather fringe and can seem quite alien. Indeed, many people do not know that monks and nuns still exist in modern Christianity. Others know that monks and nuns are still around, but are sometimes shocked to learn that Christian monks and nuns exist outside the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.”
Shortly thereafter, I was invited out to St. Gregory’s Abbey, where I observed seven Episcopalian monks following the Rule of Saint Benedict: a peaceful, ascetic lifestyle of prayer and work. I look forward to learning more about this community on future visits, and hopefully, to helping demystify it.
In early March, when I was presenting my book and photo exhibit at Ohio University, I was grateful to see Emily and Jeremy Janey, whom I had met the previous year. The Janeys observe Asatru, a polytheistic tradition whose adherents believe to be rooted in ancient Germanic literature and folklore. Residents of southeast Ohio, they describe their beliefs as closely intertwined with Appalachian heritage and culture – as closely, perhaps, as serpent handling is for others.
They left me a moving note about their empathy for the Wolford family: “You capture spirituality in a way that you feel what they feel. Not being Christian does not stop me from wanting to feel what they feel. Being Appalachian, I feel as though they are family. I mourn their loss. Thank you for capturing this. Hugs and welcoming.”
I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Janeys to attend several ceremonies and observe their closely knit, self-reliant family life.
I’m also looking forward to better getting to know Columbus’ Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo community, which I photographed last autumn during a Meskel ceremony at the St. Michael church. Meskel celebrates the discovery of the True Cross in the 4th century.
Gradually, I’m realizing that although I sometimes feel at a loss, the book publication process has in fact given me something: unexpected bridges to new communities, and stronger relationships with those I know. It’s also helped me remember why I began photographing religion in the first place: to connect with people, to feel and understand – and hopefully, to help others do the same.