When Rick Cary was in graduate school in Tennessee some years ago, a friend told him of the strange deaths of two young ministers of a religious congregation called Signs Following, one of a number of such independent, non-affiliated congregations throughout the Southeast bearing that name. The ministers had died after being bitten by venomous snakes that figured in the group’s services.
“The press reported the deaths in a sensationalistic way,” Rick recalls, “and that drew my attention on the basis of, at that time, morbid curiosity.”
Now, however, Rick has been drawn to the Signs Following believers of the Appalachians from a different perspective as a documentary photographer, one of only a handful allowed to photograph some of the members of these reclusive congregations and to record the kind of profound spiritual faith that they believe can bring the power to conquer death, not only from the bites of rattlesnakes, copperheads or water moccasins but from drinking poisons like strychnine. “Handlers and congregants fully realize death can occur,” Rick says. “They believe God either gives them victory over the serpents or He does not. If not, and they die, it’s God’s will.”
The choice of subject was somewhat of a departure for Rick, who has built a reputation as a fine arts photographer, winning critical notice several years ago for his haunting series of photographs taken inside the New Orleans warehouses where the bits and pieces of Mardi Gras floats lay jumbled together in between the annual event. “I put no credence in the prevailing prejudice that one type of photography is superior to another or there are absolute borders between art forms,” Rick says. “I see both fine arts and documentary as valid art forms that enrich our lives in important ways.” (Rick also serves as Dean of Fine Arts and Professional Programs at Mars Hill College.)
Rick was reminded of the Signs Following congregations during a visit nearly a decade ago from an old friend living in rural Appalachia, one of whose neighbors happened to be the Reverend Jimmy Morrow, a name Rick remembered from the reports of the two ministers’ deaths years earlier, at which Reverend Morrow had been present. “At the time I was considering expanding my artistic interests to include documentary work and so I decided to research the Signs Following tradition,” Rick says. “It led me to a deeper and more respectful understanding of this uniquely Appalachian Mountain religion, its practices and its people.”
It’s thought the practice of snake-handling as an expression of Christian faith first arose in about 1910 in southeastern Tennessee. Signs Following congregations can now be found from central Florida to West Virginia, and as far west as Ohio, all basing their faith on a Biblical passage from Mark: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name…they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”
While there are some 90 documented cases of death by snakebite among Signs Following believers, prosecutions in such religious contexts are rare because of First Amendment protections, as long as handlers don’t force members to take up snakes or otherwise endanger other congregants or the public in general. “Most churches have a special altar area with a wall, behind which handlers do their thing,” Rick says.
Nonetheless, Signs Followers remain deeply suspicious of outsiders. If it wasn’t for his friend’s introduction to Reverend Jimmy, Rick would likely not have been allowed access. “Reverend Jimmy’s the exception among the Signs Following ministers,” Rick explains. “He’s said that he had a dream when he was a teenager in which God directed him to preach to a million people, and he reasoned one way to accomplish this was through photography and video.
He welcomed me to his church services and immediately agreed to the photography project. He and I and his lovely wife have become good friends.” It helped, too, that the Reverend is an artist himself, producing religious-themed paintings that Rick is also documenting through videos and a planned book.
The artistic challenge for Rick in photographing Reverend Jimmy’s services was to capture the authenticity of the believers’ faith without sensationalizing their practices — without making them seem, in Rick’s words, “like a freak show. Reverend Jimmy is a charismatic preacher who wants to be the center of people’s attention, but some people differ in their sensitivity to being photographed. I never ask people to pose. I simply talk to people respectfully and later give them copies of the pictures. If I felt that anyone was posing or changing their behavior because of the camera, I would shoot anyway but those images would not survive the editing stage.”
A selection of the photographs, which comprise Rick’s documentary “Credo” series (after the Latin for “I believe”), has been exhibited at Manhattan’s Abrons Art Gallery, with other venues under consideration for future shows. Meanwhile, Rick continues to travel to congregations in remote parts of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee to document the next generation of Signs Followers. “My job is to capture the visual aspects of these people’s experience,” Rick says. “My first experience in a service in which poisonous snakes were handled was one of fear, but not of the snakes. It was fear that this was a great privilege and I better not push the wrong button on the camera.”