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. In 2011, Lauren Pond traveled to West Virginia to answer these questions: Who are the serpent handlers? What motivates them to continue their potentially lethal practices through the generations?
Join documentary photographer Lauren Pond as she discusses the result of this query: her book, Test of Faith, about a family of Pentecostal serpent handlers in West Virginia. Pond was awarded the prestigious Duke Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography for her book, published in November by Duke University Press. She is a documentary photographer specializing in faith and religion at Ohio State’s Center for the Study of Religion. Her photographs have appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She has spoken about her work at universities and conferences across the United States.
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.