Perhaps you’ve heard about Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford’s death. He was a second-generation “serpent handler” – a Pastor who believes that Christians are called upon to handle poisonous snakes. Not only do they believe they should handle them, but they also believe that if they are bitten, it is up to God to heal them… Not modern medicine.
It’s hard to swallow, isn’t it? The idea that God would call on mankind to do something incredibly dangerous in His name, and then ask His followers to ignore the modern medicine that most Christians believe God helped create.
But it was Mack Wolford’s faith, and as people say, faith is belief in the absence of evidence.
Wolford knew the risks, his own father died of a rattlesnake bite. Perhaps Mack Wolford believed it was his destiny. Regardless, it was his fate.
The most compelling report of the story of the younger Pastor Wolford’s death, however, is that of photojournalist Lauren Pond. In her Washington Post Lifestyle post, Why I Watched a Snake-Handling Pastor Die for His Faith, Pond looks back at the man who was not just her subject, but also her friend, whom she chose to watch die.
The Post piece has a photo gallery of images of Wolford handling the snake soon after he was bitten, sweat on his collar and down his chest, another roy Wolford collapsing and being carried by two men into a vehicle, and another, which is the most heartbreaking, of his mother stroking his feet just before he passed away.
At first glance, one may think Pond was a voyeuristic onlooker to a horrific tragedy. But Pond’s intention in photographing that day was not to capture a death. She went down to capture images of a man and a congregation she’d gotten to know during the last year. She was invited along to photograph the passing of the pastor as well.
What she was met with changed her forever:
Some of the people who attended last Sunday’s service have struggled with Mack’s death, as I have. “Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. . . . Is this really what God wants?”
That’s a good question.
I know many photojournalists have been in situations similar to mine. Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter photographed an emaciated Sudanese child struggling to reach a food center during a famine — as a vulture waited nearby. He was roundly criticized for not helping the child, which, along with the disturbing memories of the events he had covered and other factors, may have contributed to his suicide. As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.
It all brings up so many questions. What would you do in this situation? Would you photograph this event or refuse? Bond states that the family was very clearly not against her taking the photographs or sharing them.
Would you sneak away and call 911 or try to honor the man’s faith?
Photo of Rattlesnake courtesy of Shutterstock