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Lauren Pond: A Journalist Crossing the Cultural Divide

“Lauren Pond’s work suggests that the art of grasping genuine cultural difference—something that’s essential to effective reporting on the American electorate—demands so much more. It asks us to shed our preconceptions, enter strange communities in a spirit of tolerance and humility, interact with genuine respect and curiosity, and earn the trust of our subjects. It asks us, in other words, to do so much more than conventional journalism currently asks us to do.”

“In November of 2017, Duke University Press will publish Test of Faith, a book of photographs by the 31-year-old Ohio photographer Lauren Pond. The volume has already generated buzz, having won the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. . . .

“The most common outside reaction to the snake handlers’ ideology is to dismiss it entirely. It’s an understandable take, but it’s also an easy one. Pond, who started taking photographs of serpent handling in 2011, assumed a decidedly more difficult approach: she stripped away the predictable presuppositions, took seriously the Pentecostal brand of worship, and worked to understand snake handlers as snake handlers. But not only that: She aimed to present them as human beings as well, real people with complex systems of belief that, in the depth of their faith, deserved to be understood.

“After learning more about Pond through a phone interview and several email exchanges, it became clear that her mission was to do more than lend meaningful insight into an elusive and exotic religious practice (although she does this remarkably well). It was also to provide a model of journalistic integrity that might, in its quest to grasp a radically alien practice, better help us respect cultures we too often reduce to caricature. Pond chose empathy and tolerance. And it shows in the amazingly nuanced portrayal of her subjects. . . .

Mack Wolford’s mother, Snook, with a customer at the Bramwell Café, Bramwell, West Virginia, 2013. Photograph by Lauren Pond.

“In the wake of Trump’s election, as well as the emergence of “fake news,” the media that so badly botched its coverage of the American electorate has made at least rhetorical efforts to broaden its cultural horizons and double down on the accuracy of its reporting. NPR has lately been talking about providing “reliable and thoughtful spaces” for “important conversations” while remaining a go-to outlet for fact-based reporting.

“Space and facts are fine and good, as are decent conversations. But Lauren Pond’s work suggests that the art of grasping genuine cultural difference—something that’s essential to effective reporting on the American electorate—demands so much more. It asks us to shed our preconceptions, enter strange communities in a spirit of tolerance and humility, interact with genuine respect and curiosity, and earn the trust of our subjects. It asks us, in other words, to do so much more than conventional journalism currently asks us to do.”

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