The scene has been playing over and over in my head since then, and the questions are weighing on me: As a photojournalist, what role did I have in this tragedy, and what is it now, in the aftermath? Was it right for me to remain in the background taking pictures, as I did, and not seek medical attention for the dying pastor, whose beliefs forbade it? Or should I have intervened and called paramedics earlier, which would have undermined Mack’s wishes? Finally, what was I supposed to do with the images I shot?
My thoughts have been especially muddied because of the context in which I knew Mack. He wasn’t just a source and a subject in my year-long documentary project about Pentecostal serpent-handling; he was also a friend: We shared a meal at the cafe where members of his family work; he screened videos about himself for me at his house; I once stayed the night on his couch.
The practices of the Signs Following faith remain an enigma to many. How can people be foolish enough to interpret Mark 16: 17-18 so literally: to ingest poison, such as strychnine, which Mack also allegedly did at Sunday’s ceremony; to handle venomous snakes; and, most incomprehensible of all, not to seek medical treatment if bitten? Because of this reaction, many members of this religious community are hesitant to speak to the media, let alone be photographed.
But Mack was different. He allowed me to see what life was like for a serpent-handler outside church, which helped me better understand the controversial religious practice, and, I think, helped me add nuance to my photographs. His passing, my first vivid encounter with death, was both a personal and professional loss for me.
I decided to attend the worship service Mack was holding at Panther Wildlife Management Area, in the southwestern part of the state, on a whim, thinking that it would be good to see him again, and that I’d make the seven-hour drive back to Washington the following morning. But I haven’t returned. I have been staying at a friend’s house close to Bluefield, speaking with Mack’s family members, and gradually allowing myself to feel some of the raw emotion that has been percolating for days.