Letting someone die for their faith: Moving essay by photojournalist who documented snake handler's death

Randy Wolford made the news this week. A pastor in a Christian sect that promotes holding and carrying venomous snakes as a way of expressing faith in God, Wolford died from a snake bite. Just like his father had.

Lauren Pond, a photojournalist with the Washington Post, was at the church service when Wolford was bitten and she stayed with him and his family, taking photos, during the long hours before Wolford's death. In the wake of the experience, Pond has written a thoughtful essay about both journalistic and personal ethics. When a journalist documents someone's death like this, what should be done with the photos? If someone refuses medical help that you know they need, are you under obligation to help them anyway ... or to respect their decisions?

Some of the people who attended last Sunday’s service have struggled with Mack’s death, as I have. “Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. . . . Is this really what God wants?”

That’s a good question.

I know many photojournalists have been in situations similar to mine. Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter photographed an emaciated Sudanese child struggling to reach a food center during a famine — as a vulture waited nearby. He was roundly criticized for not helping the child, which, along with the disturbing memories of the events he had covered and other factors, may have contributed to his suicide. As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

See Lauren Pond's photos of Randy Wolford's final hours


  1. I suppose that that’s what Moe The Bartender on “The Simpsons” meant when he said “I was born a Snake-Handler and I’ll die a Snake-Handler.”

      1.  I know it’s slow, and unfortunately, some poor strains mange to breed longer than is good for the general population. It’s not my fault that they aren’t dying quick enough. Hell, I’d give them all a few venomous snakes.

    1. Feeling uncertainty when one’s professional ethics are in conflict with your personal ones seems to me a reassuring sign of one’s humanity. She did the professional thing, so she can probably stay away from weddings for now.

    2. The thing about ethical and moral dilemmas is that they are dilemmas. If she had no capacity to have qualms about making a choice that was difficult and conflicting, she’d probably be a sociopath.

      1.  None of them will call. Christian snake handlers believe that being bit is a test and God will heal them (unless he doesn’t will it). Nobody would call because that would be doubting God.

        This is just more religious brain damage as far as I’m concerned.

        1. . . .  Christ kept a doubter with him (Thomas) so what does that say about their understanding?  
          Keeping some doubt is healthy.  Not doubting is scary because it can lead to a proverbial hell.

  2. Photographing and not helping a starving child who would very much appreciate your help is a long ways away ethically from an adult purposely doing something dangerous and then rejecting help and dying from their self-inflicted stupidity.

    1. Thank you. I came here to see if someone had the sense to work out her own analogy for her.

  3. If he wished to die that way she was right not to intercede. No more questions.

    I seriously hate people that feel they have the right to decide about when you should or should not die.

    Both capital punishment and therapeutic cruelty (Dysthanasia) are loathsome. 

  4.  I’d say this to the man from Facebook: God probably didn’t want Wolford to die a painful death. But God gave Wolford a brain and the intelligence to recognize rampant stupidity, and gave him every possible opportunity to avoid said rampant stupidity. When Wolford ignored all that and went ahead anyway, God probably just sighed and shook his head sadly.

    To quote a punchline: “I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what _more_ did you expect of Me?”

    1.  “But God gave Wolford a brain and the intelligence to recognize rampant stupidity,…”
      Well, he gave him a brain anyway.

    2. What’s a faithful person supposed to believe?  A guy might read the sixth chapter of the Book of Daniel, the bit where Daniel is thrown to the lions for praying every day, and after learning how Daniel survived completely unscathed due apparently to his faith (since the people who conspired to have him thrown to the lions were themselves subsequently thrown to the lions and eaten before they hit the floor), a guy might think that a sufficiently devout faith in the Lord will protect him from the bite of any critter.  Such a guy should realize that Daniel didn’t hop willingly into the lion’s den just to test God’s love, but was unwillingly and unjustly thrown there for his faith, which is very different from the motivations of your garden-variety snake-handler.  In Daniel’s case, it made judicial sense for God to intervene, whereas snake-handling lacks any real sense of divine justice.

      Still, when things like this happen, you might expect the congregation to diminish somewhat.  Rather than finding a more sensible sect, as it were, some people might lose their faith in the existence of a benevolent God altogether, which you’d think would not be encouraged by such a God.

      Oh, well.  Occam’s Razor applies again, I figure.

      1.  I dunno – I first heard it as two boats and a helicopter too…  Just sayin’

        1. First, the cop car comes to his house to warn him that the flood is coming. Then the boat comes to his window. Then the helicopter comes to the roof. I first heard it in the 1960s. It’s an old joke.

  5. The diversity in the logic of each individual human consciousness never ceases to amaze me.

    That being said, come on USA lets get it together and put as much of our resources as possible into education so citizens stop following beliefs and start evaluating and building on ideas and theories.

    1.  Two things to say about that:  half of all people are below average intelligence, and, you can’t fix stupid.

      1. True, but society could do a helluva lot better job of steering stupid people away from stupid activities than the U.S. currently does.

        1.  To what end?  We’ve been breeding for stupid for a long time now, and it’s been too successful.  I think it’s time for Stupid Clubs.  Give them their own playgrounds with lots of dangerous toys.  Post big warning signs to keep intelligent people out.  Maybe take down the fences and barriers at Daytona too.

          1. Not at all, remember, we’re filtering out the dopes. They’ll ignore the warning signs.

      2. Does anybody besides me think that wanting to “fix” the half of the population that you (presumably through self-diagnosis) don’t belong to is essentially evil?

        1.  Yes, without a doubt I agree with you.  But maybe we’re not smart enough to know how smart mass murder of “the other” is? 

      3.  I know the ‘average intelligence’ line is supposed to be funny, but it’s really annoying.

      4.  Perhaps you are so smart that all of the rest of us are well below average, eh?   When you pass away in the fullness of time, we will all become much smarter, as compared to the arithmetic mean.

  6. I am sorry: Lauren Pond may be affected by witnessing the death of someone she knew  but that does not make her comments any more cogent as it confuses completely different situations. Kevin Carter was witnessing the death of a child who has had no way of deciding his/her own fate while she was witnessing the death of someone who had chosen to bet that this could not happen because he had “faith”.  In many ways, how does Randy Wolford differ from that of someone playing Russian roulette?  One has “faith” while the other one wagers that the next round will be empty: in the end, it comes to the same.  Darwinism acts in both cases but in different ways: In the case of Wolford, it is the culling of those who make poor decisions, in the Carter case, without assistance the child would survive (in what conditions) only if his/her metabolism allows it until access to nutrition.  On one side the consequence of will (existence of choice), on the other side the fate of what one was born with, context and physiology,  (no choice).

  7. This is obviously a big issue in medical ethics, and a lot has been written on it. Generally we accept that when someone has capacity to make a decision (defining that is another thing) we should respect their autonomy in deciding to refuse treatment.

    This is quite simple when it comes to sane Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood products but gets very messy when mental health issues or vulnerable people are involved, for instance the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses, people who were Jehovah’s Witnesses but now lack capacity through mental illness etc.

    I’m not sure why all my examples were Jehovah’s Witnesses there, although they are the most common group of people to regularly refuse life saving treatment. Them and old people who don’t want to be resuscitated.

    1. Yeah personally I don’t get it. It’s illegal to commit suicide, it’s illegal to attempt suicide – but it’s totally sweet to play with snakes that can kill you and refuse medical intervention if you get bitten?

  8. the difference between watching a man refuse medical help and die because of what he believed, and watching not helping a child who is struggling to reach  a food center are NOT even close to “similar situations.”  

  9. Kevin Carter couldn’t have helped that child. There were many children there in the exact same situation and not enough food. If he’d picked that child up, it would have taken food from another child, only to delay death for a day. It was a problem too big for one man with a camera. 

    Not a direct comparison to this case, but just worth noting that Kevin Carter wasn’t a monster, and he didn’t participate in “negligent homicide.”

      1. Hehe. Touche. But throwing your starfish (or astronaut) into the ocean has the potential to actually save the starfish without hurting the others. Helping that child had the potential to take food from children who were still strong enough to live while temporarily prolonging the suffering of a child who is imminently dying. 

        He helped future children a lot more by snapping the photo that raised awareness across the world than he would have by carrying a dying child to food. 

        1. Thank you. I was going to point out the alternate account of what happened, which is very different from the usual interpretation. I guess we’ll never really know for sure.

  10. The part that bothers me the most is that the dead man was allowed to play around with choosing the time of his death (I know he was not committing suicide, but he was willingly taking the chance like Russian Roulette) when someone who is dying of cancer cannot, in most places, relieve themselves or their families of incredible misery, even when there is not the slightest possibility of recovery. People have been put in jail for helping their terminally ill parents or spouses die peacefully, should not someone is this picture be held to the same standard? Or, preferably, no one should be.

  11. It doesn’t matter what your job description is today. You’re a human being first and always.

  12. I’m an atheist who has no use for religion as a direct result of being raised by fundamentalists. Generally I try not to point one religion out as being stupider or crazier than others because I believe they are all equally made up. But jesus christ man. 

  13. As others here have pointed out, the situation described here does not match the situation Kevin Carter was in.

    My gut reaction to Lauren Pond’s specific situation is that if she feels she was was present as a journalist, to document his stupid, irresponsible behavior and the inevitable outcome thereof, then she did the right thing by just photographing him as he died. 

    If, on the other hand, she was present as a friend or part of the congregation then, yeah,  she’d be an accessory in the “negligent homicide” that the Facebook guy quite rightly feels that he’s been part of. But then again, roles can become tangled when you’re on assigment. 

     One aspect I think is missing from the discussion is that Wolford essentially forced those around him to watch him die, wich is a terrible thing to do to another person. If I’d been put in that situation by someone, I’d probably save his life with godless science just to spite him.

  14. The guy and his family were taking a gamble, he might not die and if he did it’d be a miracle and we’d’ve never heard them shut up about it. 

  15. This is a tangential and pedantic point, and I’m only an amateur, and the photograph is probably just for atmosphere … but that snake in the photograph does not look venomous to me.  If I had to guess I’d say it’s a mature Royal Ball Python, which could kill by constricting around a man’s neck but it’d be pretty tough, and is generally considered a gentle and non-aggressive species of snake which makes a good pet.

    1. Look at the shape of the head.  It’s short and flat, typical of rattlers.

  16. Hang on, did anyone else actually read the article and catch the following line?: “A family member called paramedics when Mack finally allowed it, but it was too late.”  To repeat: “when Mack finally allowed it”……
    It’s all such an enormous and unfortunate waste of human potential.

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