Last weekend, Pastor Mack Wolford, a snake-handling preacher from West Virginia, died after allegedly ingesting poison (strychnine) and suffering a bite from a yellow timber rattlesnake he had owned and handled for years. The Blaze already brought you the troubling tale, but what we haven’t yet explored is the responsibility — or lack thereof — on the part of those individuals who watched the pastor suffer for hours before he finally allowed emergency services to be notified.
Washington Post photojournalist Lauren Pond was among those who observed Wolford as he lay dying (her images from the experience are here). She was spending time with the pastor and his congregants in an effort to capture his latest, snake-handling service last weekend when she very quickly and unexpectedly found herself in a bizarre and troubling situation. Her dilemma? Pond had to choose between remaining a bystander to Wolford’s suffering, or jumping in and going against the pastor’s wishes to call paramedics.
While she ultimately chose the former, an interesting journalism ethics questions arises: Should Pond have ignored Wolford’s wishes and called an ambulance sooner?
Certainly, many would give a swift “yes, absolutely” to this question, but others would say “no,” while citing the pastor’s wishes and Pond’s role as a journalist. And a third group might even find themselves conflicted — an understandable position considering the elements at hand. After all, as a photojournalist, Pond’s job is to observe and watch over her subjects. Then, she reports what she sees. In this particular case, the individual she was capturing had an aversion to seeking help, even as he lay in critical need.
The situation was a difficult one, as Pond highlighted in an article she penned for the Post late last week. In it, she detailed the traumatic experience, opening the article with the following:
This is what I saw through my camera lens: Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford, tossing and turning on the couch in his mother-in-law’s West Virginia trailer, suffering from the pain of a rattlesnake bite he had received earlier in the day. Parishioners surrounding him in prayer in the stifling heat. His mother stroking his feet, her expression a mixture of concern, sorrow and, eventually, acceptance: This is how her eldest son — a legend in the local Pentecostal serpent-handling community — would die.
Camera in hand, I watched as the man I’d photographed and gotten to know over the past year writhed, turned pale and slipped away, a victim of his unwavering faith, but also a testament to it. A family member called paramedics when Mack finally allowed it, but it was too late. Mack Wolford drew his final, labored breaths late Sunday night. He was 44.
The mental images this description creates are disturbing, to say the least. Coming away from the experience, Pond outlined numerous questions she had in the wake of the tragedy. From assessing her own action and inaction to wondering what her role would be in the days and months following Wolford’s death, she has clearly thought deeply about what unfolded last weekend.
Pond continues, outlining her curiosities in light of these details:
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?
In continuing to discuss her struggles with the scenario, she has come to an intriguing pseudo-conclusion. While she admits that photojournalists “have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible,” she also believes that balancing professional instincts with “basic human decency and care” is paramount.
That in mind, she differentiates Wolford’s situation from suffering that can be seen following a natural disaster or a warzone. Rather than railing against the preacher’s free will to call medical professionals, Pond seems increasingly comfortable with her decision to let Wolford and his family decide his fate. She writes:
In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.
Certainly, critics would struggle with such a notion, especially considering the loss of life. However, there is a key difference that Pond notes. Had her subject been in a desperate situation in which he or she wanted or needed help, her reaction might have been different. However here, in this faith-fueled instance, the photojournalist chose to respect the deeply-held views at play.
Other media professionals have been faced with similar choices before. In 2010, the L.A. Times published a story about CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who traveled to Haiti to cover the aftermath of the horrendous earthquake that hit the region in January of that year. Rather than simply reporting, the neurosurgeon jumped in and provided on camera medical treatment — an action he was criticized for in the days following his coverage.
While this is certainly different on many levels from Pond’s story, the theme of helping those in need is at the center of both dramas. The Times quoted Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at The Poynter Institute, in critiquing how Gupta’s situation should have been handled.
“There definitely are cases where a journalist who is qualified can and should provide medical assistance when the need is immediate and profound,” Steele said. “The problem in Dr. Gupta’s case is that he has done this on a number of occasions in Iraq and now in Haiti. If it’s imperative that he intervene and help medically, then take him out of his journalistic role and do that. But don’t have him covering the same stories in which he’s a participant. It muddles the journalistic reporting. It clouds the lens in terms of the independent observation and reporting.”
Of course, this commentary is mostly speaking about those who have medical skills. Judging from the information we know, Pond did not (although we cannot be certain) have this expertise. Rather than assisting directly, her role would have likely been more rooted in alerting those with experience in how to treat the pastor. In the end, though, she rejected this choice and chose to continue taking images and respecting Wolford’s wishes.
There are no easy answers here. Considering the issues of religious freedom, human dignity, personal responsibility and the like, what do you think? Should Pond have intervened sooner to save the pastor’s life? Take our poll, below, and let us know: