by Abby Ohlheiser
The Bible says: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mark 16.17-18, KJV)
And so, in the southern Appalachian Mountains, Pastor Jimmy Morrow of the Edwina Church of God In Jesus’ Name coaxes the snake on his lap with a gentle voice, saying “I ain’t gonna hurt you. I ain’t gonna hurt you dirty boy.” It’s a copperhead snake, a venemous pit viper. He’s a snake handler; his church members are Signs Followers: pentecostals who take Mark 16 literally. They believe, therefore they shall take up serpents, as the verse says.
But Pastor Morrow is handling for the cameras; a small group of documentarians are themselves being documented by filmmakers Jonathan Durham and Katrina Albright. It’s a media-only snake handling session, what Durham calls a change in the ritual of the church. Pastor Morrow is deliberately, directly, engaging with the media.
Durham and Albright are interested in that relationship between subject and documenter. Their film-in-progress, Signs Following, takes a step back to put Morrow, his serpents, and the photographers and filmmakers who love them, into the frame together.
Durham met Morrow through a photographer named Rick Cary. Cary’s spent a lot of time with the church, photographing them in a hybrid snapshot-documentary style that privileges authentic moments over aesthetic composition. Durham curated Credo at the Abrons Art Center, an exhibition of Cary’s photographs is up through November 5 for those of you in New York City.
Durham and Albright are about a year into filming, with another year to go. Abrons Art Center showed aa brief excerpt of their film at a screening of Holy Ghost People a weird, wonderful 1967 ethnographic film about snake handling. It’s public domain. Find it.) Later, I asked Durham to talk to me a bit more about what they’re looking at and what they hope to capture in their documentary:
The Revealer: Who is the subject of this film? Jimmy Morrow, the pastor? It seems, to some extent, to be both the pastor and those documenting him.
Jonathan: We’re very interested in this particular family,Jimmy and his wife Pam. And also in their creative relationship with the media, because in general the media is looked at as outsiders there, and in the past has portrayed them [the church] in a very negative way. We really quickly saw that Jimmy is engaged in his own dialogue with the media. That is the meat of the subject. He has a radical faith practice, but at the same time he allows people to come in who don’t practice it and who may treat it as a spectacle. But he gives them the benefit of the doubt. I guess we’re conscious, too, of how this might change their own ritual.
The Revealer: In the excerpt I saw, you end up filming a bunch of photographers and filmmakers documenting Murrow. I noticed that one of the photographers had his face blurred out. Were the other documentarians cool with you being there, with you filming them?
Jonathan: Well, we all talked about our interests, and where we’re from. And then we did our own thing in terms of shooting. In particular the group you saw was pretty adamant about not being represented, which we thought was curious, to say the least. They’re in a worship service. They’re shaking hands with people. Although it’s not that uncommon for a documentarian to want their identity to be private if they’re seeking access to hard-to-engage-with communities. We were interested in that balance between how Jimmy and his congregation were letting themselves be represented, but the media weren’t letting themselves be represented.
The Revealer: Why is this getting documented, to this degree? In other words, what’s so appealing about snake handling as a subject?
Jonathan: That’s kind of an obvious question, and an obvious answer. It’s truly dangerous. It’s resulted in people dying or getting really hurt. It’s also spectacular. The snake is a very strong sign and symbol. It’s a very ancient sign and symbol for so many cultures. I think it’s also something that anyone can look at and immediately ask themselves why is that person doing that, or would they be willing to do that, for something they believe in.
What makes you different from the photographers and filmmakers you’re documenting? Do you share some of that same attraction to snake handling that you just described?
At first we were… we’re not the first photographers who have come through this church by any means. They’re pretty used to people coming in with cameras. They were very gracious about that. We had a few meals with them, we went to their homecoming, we ate a ton of food at their homecoming. We just kind of hung out with them. We shared a lot of stories, not related to handling or anything, just about their lives.
In the short period of time that I was down there looking at the other documentarians… they want to see snakes, basically. That’s what you saw in that one scene.
There have been other documentary groups that have followed Jimmy. I’m not saying that we’re totally different.
The Revealer: So how much of the film is about snake handling, as opposed to the rest of their lives?
Jonathan: Honestly, about 20% of the documentary is about snake handling.
The Revealer: One of the things that really struck me about Rick Cary’s photographs is the way in which the photos seem to privilege the content over the formal composition. How he’s trying to capture a moment — almost like a really, really excellent version of a family snapshot — that’s being taken to preserve something as opposed to trying to compose something. Watching the excerpt of your film, I started to wonder if maybe that had an influence on your approach to filming Jimmy and his family.
Jonathan: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it so much, but in a way he’s there. He’s not asking him to pose, which some photographers are doing. He’s there looking for snapshots or windows into our lives. That definitely has an influence on the way we’re looking at this film.
Abby Ohlheiser is a journalist and graduate student at NYU’s Religion and Journalism program.