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Witness to Tragedy: Between the Historical and the Poetic

One morning in February, I woke up to the tragic news of Jamie Coot’s death from a venomous snakebite. I’ve been documenting the Pentecostal Holiness community since 2011, and this was the second time I’ve witnessed the devastating impact of a pastor’s death on a congregation. These profound events have had an immeasurable impact on my understanding of ethical representation and my belief in the integrity of documentary practice. The sensational nature of Pentecostalism has drawn a great deal of media attention since the 1960s, particularly in times of tragedy and loss within the church. After the passing of my friend and subject Pastor Mack Wolford, the media shifted its focus toward my project in an attempt to uncover more information about the religious tradition. This shift, from documentarian to subject, altered my understanding of the role of photographer as objective witness and forced me to reassess the intent of my work and the nature of my interactions. Furthermore, it has deeply complicated my established mode of image making and changed my awareness of the sociopolitical, economic, and cultural impact of popular journalism within Appalachia.

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This essay was originally published by the Oxford American as part of its Portraying Appalachia symposium, which examined representation in the region.

Almost three years ago I began working on a documentary film about Wolford, who was the enigmatic pastor of a Signs Following Pentecostal church in Matoaka, West Virginia. This project, my first longform 16mm film, was intended to be a portrait of the controversial and sensational practice of serpent handling. My initial goal was to establish a link between the strong environmental and economic elements with the extremity of the church’s beliefs, a desire that revealed my presumptions about the region. (The impulse to connect the economic and environmental hardship to many aspects of Appalachian culture has been exhaustingly repeated throughout the tradition of documentary practice in Appalachia.) As a native Central Virginian, I was astounded by the abundance of natural resources in West Virginia—and by the relative poverty of the state’s inhabitants. In awe of these seemingly incongruous elements, I began to construct a piece that asserted itself as being a part of this misguided narrative tradition. It wasn’t until the shocking death of Pastor Mack Wolford that I began to question my role in a history that had been established long before my camera arrived in the region.

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The author filming Pastor Mack Wolford.

Robert Penn Warren described reality as “not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events.” This simple statement reflects the brutal—and often overlooked—nature of representation. Herein lies the impotency of documentary photography: a singular image is unable to convey or express the depth of interaction. (By this, I am referring to the depth of the photograph’s interaction with author, subject, and viewer.) My document of Mack is culpable, not just as witness but also as instigator, provocateur, and enabler. Photographs lie by omission—always. They are trapped in constant dialogue with history, while subduing and denying the three-dimensional space of the present that they occupy. What is omitted from my photographs is that my interactions with Mack had the complex depth of a friendship. That friendship spanned over a year-and-a-half and entailed weekly phone calls and moments that were so mundane as to not be worthy of mention. I slept on his couch while he watched television and ate Popsicles. I watched him love his wife and call her silly names. I photographed him laughing and petting his tiny lap dog. We shared dinners and breakfasts together. I gripped onto the door of his truck as he careened down winding hollow roads at reckless speeds. I hiked mountains with him, teased him, and ignored his calls when I didn’t feel like chatting. He called me “Sunshine” and I called him “Big Mack.” These moments occurred in the presence of the camera, beyond the view of the project’s projected audience—yet they occurred because of the potential offered by photographic publicity.

Reality is defined as “the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.” I was disappointed the first time I drove into Matoaka to visit Mack’s church. It didn’t resemble the narrative I had constructed in the weeks preceding my trip. The mountains surrounding Bluefield and Matoaka are modest, with wide-open hollows and gentle curves. The brutality of the coal industry isn’t streaked across the skyline, as we’ve seen so many times in work pertaining to West Virginia. There is poverty, but that poverty resembles that which resides in my home city. There are Walmarts and fast food chains, big homes and gas stations. Driving toward his little church, I began to identify the spots that I thought represented the idea of West Virginia and Pentecostalism: train tracks, rivers, mountainscapes, trailers, and a strong “mountain” culture. These sought-out elements were, of course, there, but they existed within a non-idealized world of contemporary, globalized culture.

Commonality—the points where cultures merge and resemble one another—is seldom a focus of documentary photography. Instead, postmodernists, social documentarians, and fine artists scan landscapes for irony, visual juxtaposition—for otherness. To deny my desire for otherness in Appalachia would be dishonest; I’m painfully aware of the way my relationship with Mack was limited by my previously established understanding of the “snake handler.”

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Photography enforces subjectivity; it commands a frame, a forced perspective. Seldom are images installed in a way that incorporates the interaction between the viewer and the work. Instead, photography is locked within a box that combines present reality with poetic history. In even the most abstract forms of documentary photography (Danny Wilcox Frazier, William Eggleston, Justin Maxon), a sense of truth is proclaimed; a notion that we must dismiss before we can truly decode the language of the photographic image. Does my project about Mack Wolford accurately represent the reality of the Pentecostal Holiness faith? No. Honestly, it does not. I don’t believe that it could. I’ve never seen a project that accurately portrayed the depth and complexity of any culture. Has my project influenced and molded this community? I believe that it has. To assign a positive connotation to this realization would be absurd, as the true impact of our interactions cannot be quantified, traced, or studied. I can never know how my presence altered the series of events that led to the death of a friend.

I wasn’t in attendance at the service when Mack received his fatal snakebite. Regardless of my distance, I can now recall that day as if it were my own memory. With each new article and essay I read about the moment, I feel as though I can picture him as he worshipped, was bitten, and faded away. I can imagine his family gathering around him to stroke his feet and pray. A journalist that I had become acquainted with through Mack’s church was present on his final day. In many ways her relationship with Mack mirrored my own, as she spent time in his congregation developing a feature for the Washington Post. During the tenuous hours of his death, the home that she had once visited as a friend became a stage for mainstream America’s narrative on serpent handling. Despite the family’s request that pictures not be taken of Mack in his vulnerable (and unclothed) state, she continued to photograph. The resulting images were published on the front page of the Washington Post, to the shock and dismay of his family and congregation.

The historical sequence of events that led to Mack’s death is something I’ve questioned hundreds of times, for I feel implicated in and damaged by this tragedy. In many ways, I see photography as a tool for accountability. The camera has been co-opted as a weapon in activism, a tool, also, for radical interaction and reflection, and as a means to bearing witness to events that would otherwise be hidden from the mainstream gaze. Although photography often falls short in its depiction of war, death, life, and beauty in many forms, it does grant space for the interplay of personal and public fantasy. Cameras enable us photographers to experience the world through our own subjective filters, to project our personal emotions—whether sadness, terror, or joy—onto greater works of art. Also, photography itself is an act. It manipulates and alters space and relationships; it threatens and demands certain things from its subjects.

As the journalist for the Washington Post shifted from her role as friend and guest to documenter and witness, the structure of events and potential outcomes became limited by her presence—and the implied presence of a greater audience. Photography has this ability: it can influence events through its suggestion of subjective viewership. As Mack moved toward death and his family navigated the trauma of the circumstances, they had to simultaneously consider the eyes and thoughts of an unpredictable audience. Did this influence Mack’s reluctance to call an ambulance? If there had been no photographers present, would the lack of public accountability have meant he might have gone to the hospital and lived? I can never know the answers to these questions, but what I can know is that photography has power. For nearly a century, this power has been subverted for the sake of entertainment, a form that has been veiled as “news.”

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Should we burden photography with the responsibility of being an accurate depiction of reality? Are photography’s limitations a failure on the part of the medium, or simply a projection of the public’s desire to manipulate and interpret scenes from another life? Photographs have a double consciousness; they exist within the moment they were taken and transform within the minds of viewers. Photographs are mirrors; yet their reflections change as new viewers shift into frame. Once we regard these certain truths and begin to see photography as mutable, fluid, and transformative, we can understand that viewers themselves are participants in a photograph’s narrative. Similarly, we can regard the significance of an invisible participant in the development of a photograph, just as Mack and his family did on the day of his death.

In the aftermath of this project, my work has become increasingly unstable. The experience fundamentally altered the way that I approach photography and, more significantly, the way I engage with the still image. I’ve begun to view the still image as an entry point—rather than definitive statement or document—suggesting a much larger discussion, in which I find it essential to expand the frame of the photographic canvas to include the interaction. In making images, I consent to the myriad of possibilities that lie in wait. I recognize the importance of the interaction that precedes the pressing of the shutter, yet acknowledge the powerlessness that occurs when a photograph is created and moves forward beyond my own subjective desires and intents. Subsequently, I hope to eventually find comfort in my understanding of photography as a disobedient art form and my own attempts, successes, and failures.

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Mack Wolford and Kate Fowler, Matoaka, West Virginia.

This essay was originally published by the Oxford American as part of its Portraying Appalachia symposium, which examined representation in the region. This summer, as part of a cultural exchange program called Envisioning Our Future, Carnegie Museum of Art and the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop worked with rural and urban Appalachian youth to learn storytelling. As part of the program, students were given the opportunity to explore concepts of place, identity, and economic transition through filmmaking, photography, podcasting, and creative writing—all with the galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art as the backdrop and inspiration for their learning. To learn more, visit the Envisioning Appalachia story archive.

Envisioning Appalachia is an ongoing series that explores concepts of place, identity, and economic transition in the region’s urban and rural areas. The series is produced in partnership with the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop.