“We find ourselves at a moment when photo books are as important as ever, because they are concrete statements of artistic vision, essential counterweights in the ‘Ocean of Images’ that we swim through every day.”
—Peter Barberie, judge, 2016 CDS/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography
Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford poses for a portrait inside his church, the Full Gospel Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus, which opened in 2010, Matoaka, West Virginia, November 2011. Photograph by Lauren Pond.
Congratulations to Lauren Pond, a photographer based in Columbus, Ohio, who was selected by curator Peter Barberie of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to win the eighth biennial First Book Prize in Photography for her color series Test of Faith that document, as Pond writes, “a family of Pentecostal Holiness serpent handlers that I have photographed since 2011.
“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.’ Despite scores of deaths from snakebites and the closure of numerous churches, there remains a small contingent of serpent handlers devoted to keeping the practice alive.
“Who are the serpent handlers? What motivates them to keep going? These are questions that I sought to answer when I first traveled to West Virginia and met Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford, one of the best-known Signs Following preachers in the region. I spent the following year getting to know him and his family, but the course of my project changed dramatically in May 2012 when Mack, then forty-four years old, was bitten by a rattlesnake during a worship service I attended.”
Pond photographed the events that followed and has continued her relationship with Mack’s family. As she says, “I no longer see my images as being about serpent-handling practice and culture. Instead, they serve as a record of my rich friendship with the Wolfords, our shared experiences, and the valuable insights they have given me into the tenets of their faith—namely, forgiveness and redemption.”
Mack Wolford’s mother, Snook, chats with a customer at the cafe where she works with Mack’s wife, Fran, Bramwell, West Virginia, September 2013. Photograph by Lauren Pond.
First Book Prize judge Peter Barberie, Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art selected Pond’s photographs to win from a group of nine finalists because her “long-term documentation of the Wolford family emerged as a unique, cogent, and powerful topic for publication. Lauren Pond plunges us into the hothouse atmosphere of their faith. Through her photographs I can almost feel the physical strain of Mack’s worship, and I long to hear the song that his mother, Snook, sings as he accompanies her on guitar. Who are these purposeful, vibrant people so different from myself? Test of Faith commands this question and prompts me to consider the basis and limitations of my own worldview.”
Pond receives a grant of $3,000, inclusion in a website devoted to presenting the work of the prizewinners, and publication of a book of photography. Barberie will write the introduction, and Pond an afterword, to the book, which is forthcoming in November 2017 from Duke University Press in association with CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Pond will also have a solo exhibition in Duke’s Rubenstein Library Photography Gallery, and the photographs will then be placed in the library’s Archive of Documentary Arts.
Lauren Pond, a documentary photographer who specializes in faith and religion, is currently the multimedia content producer for the American Religious Sounds Project within The Ohio State University’s Center for the Study of Religion. She also manages an art gallery and works on freelance projects across the country. She received her Master of Arts degree in photojournalism from Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication in 2014, and bachelor’s degrees in journalism and art from Northwestern University in 2009. Pond’s photographs have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and have been recognized by the Magnum/Inge Morath Foundations, the Lucie Foundation, FotoVisura, Photo District News, College Photographer of the Year, and the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, among others. She has spoken about her work at universities and conferences across the United States.
The CDS/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography is awarded by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Honickman Foundation.