Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article originally published by Refinery29, the leading next-gen media and entertainment company focused on women. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
“I met a woman in a spiritual center in western Massachusetts. It was summer, and there was no one there but us,” American photographer Frances F. Denny recounts.
“She seemed nervous about having her picture taken. We sat cross-legged across from one another in a field and, by way of introduction, she sang me a Celtic song. I remember the sun was blinding me as I watched her, and I felt my eyes stinging. She then read to me from a document outlining the various tortures condemned ‘witches’ were subjected to during the Spanish Inquisition.
“When she finished reading, she put her face very close to mine and told me, quite fiercely, that she would agree to be photographed as long as I protected her – and my other subjects – from ridicule. I told her that while my intentions were to represent my subjects with dignity, I couldn’t control what people would say about the pictures. I was honest with her. She seemed to understand, and agreed to be photographed.”
Denny has had many encounters like this one, with women across the United States, while working on her photographic project “Major Arcana: Witches in America” – an expansive visual document of the modern face of witchcraft. The stirrings of the project began in 2013 when, having grown up just outside of Boston, she was researching her family’s history in the New England area.
Looking through her family tree, she discovered two important things. The first was that her 10th great-grandfather, Samuel Sewall, was one of the central judges in the Salem witch trials. The second was that her eighth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons, was an accused “witch” 20 years prior, in Northampton, another Massachusetts town.
“The coincidence stayed with me, and in 2015 I read the historical biographer Stacy Schiff’s book on the Salem witch trials, which mentioned Samuel Sewall and reminded me of my ancestral connection,” Denny explains. “That was the spark of my interest in the historical archetype of the witch. It was only a matter of time before I began thinking about what this word ‘witch’ means to modern women. I began to wonder, ‘Who calls herself a witch now?’”
In the years that followed, Denny traversed the country, meeting more than 70 women who identify as witches, unearthing traits of power and perseverance in all of them. Here, she tells Refinery29 the story of her odyssey, and shares some of her favorite photographs from along the way.
Frances F. Denny: “When I began the project, I composed a carefully worded letter that I used to explain who I am and what my intentions are for the project, and that is how I reached out to people. Once I had met and photographed around eight to 10 people, I was able to meet others very easily through referrals. As it turns out, there are a lot of witches out there! More than we realize, I think.
“The women in the pictures live all across the United States. I received support from a fellowship that helped fund the travel required to photograph over 70 individuals around the country, from California to Louisiana to New Jersey to Maine. So over the course of nearly three years, I’ve traveled around to photograph women (including non-binary and trans individuals) who identify as witches/Witches.”
“The people pictured practice a wide range of witchcrafts. From Wiccan high priestesses to millennial feminists, there is really no one way to be a witch. It’s important to acknowledge that a pagan Wiccan Witch is a religious affiliation, and that there are tensions between some old-guard Wiccans and newcomers to witchcraft, who don’t necessarily see themselves as religious or pagan but perhaps identify with the witch archetype for its fierceness, outsider status, and cultivated inner power.”
“Tarot, astrology, crystal work, spell crafting, and candle work have all been popular entries into witchcraft, too. Some witches are solitary practitioners; some join circles or covens. Included in the series are self-proclaimed green witches, white witches, sex witches, kitchen witches, and space witches. Many of these monikers refer to a kind of outward-facing healing modality. For example, a green witch is a herbalist, using her knowledge of plants and herbs to treat or heal others.”
“Some of the witches pictured have day jobs that have nothing to do with their magical practices – among the witches I’ve photographed, one is a surgical technician, another is a librarian, another a filmmaker. Then there are those whose work is more directly related to their witchcraft practice, like tarot card readers, and several women who own and operate apothecaries. Some of the individuals I met are prominent figures in the witchcraft community – they are authors, speakers, and a few have even founded their own branches of Wicca.”
“After spending three years thinking about witches and witchcraft, I’ve come to think of ‘witch’ as an identity that belongs to such a diversity of people, that there really isn’t only one way to be one. ‘Witch’ means something different to everyone I’ve photographed, but if I had to locate an underlying characteristic, I’d say that witchcraft is about conjuring an internal power source, whether that is used reflexively, towards the self, or projected outwards, towards others. I see witchcraft as effecting internal or external change. And in my experience, the witch is a person who is self-possessed, who is maybe a little (or a lot) anti-authoritarian, and who is interested in embracing the murkier, less conventionally acceptable sides of ourselves.”
“I think the upswell in the popularity of witchcraft, at least in the States, is about a dissatisfaction with the status quo, perhaps specifically with the current political leadership in this country. Young women are disillusioned with patriarchal messaging and governance, and witchcraft has given them a way to cultivate energy, power and agency on their own terms. In that way, I think it is subversive. But it’s important to remember that modern witchcraft has historically always been distinctly counterculture, even ‘fringe’ practice. It’s only recently that it’s become more interesting to the mainstream. And there is definitely some tension about that in the community.”
“The very power of the word (witch) lies in its imprecision. It is not merely a word, but an archetype, a cluster of powerful images … The price we pay for clarity of definition must not be a reduction in the force of this cluster of images.” – Margot Adler, “Drawing Down the Moon”
“When I read this passage from Margot Adler’s 1979 book ‘Drawing Down the Moon,’ I felt like she was throwing down a gauntlet for me. I wanted to create the ‘cluster of powerful images’ that make up this enigmatic archetype. Furthermore, while I wanted to shed light on modern witches, I also wanted to be careful not to de-fang the witch for my viewers by ‘clarifying’ my subjects too much for them. There is a lot of power in retaining a little mystery. That’s one reason I didn’t include extensive captions about my subjects – I don’t want to pin them down.”
“I encouraged my subjects to choose the location of their portrait session whenever possible, and also to wear whatever they wanted to the shoot. I am sensitive to the fact that the act of photographing someone is reductive, and places them at the mercy of the photographer’s framework, but I was clear with my subjects about my intentions, and tried to give them some agency in how they were represented.”
“Typically, I begin each session with an informal interview. I ask my subject how they define ‘witch’ for themselves, how long they’ve felt themselves a witch, and what kinds of practices make up their witchcraft. This is primarily a way for me to learn about them – to understand how they view themselves as witches – but it also became a way to feel them out before I pull out my camera. People are often nervous before they have their picture taken, so these conversations are a way to put my subjects more at ease.
“Once we begin photographing, I give a lot of direction. Pose, gesture, expression and the light all have to come together, and it’s my role to tease that out.”
“I spent a very memorable summer afternoon on the bank of a river in upstate New York with a snake priestess called Serpentessa. She brought two boa constrictors with her. I was nervous around the snakes at first, but after watching her interact with them for several hours, I let Serpentessa put one of them around my shoulders. It was an incredible feeling. Serpentessa works with the snakes as a healing modality – she facilitates or ‘priestesses’ interactions between people and her snakes. And I have to say, it totally clicked for me once I felt that snake wrap itself gently around my shoulders. It felt cool to the touch, and somehow very calming. No one was more surprised than me.”
“Another time, I went on a four-day trip to Vermont to photograph several witches based there. Leonore took me on a walk through the woods to a hidden cave. She was wearing a long black cloak, carrying her bow. I photographed her in the cave, and then we made our way out of the forest and into a meadow as the sun set. At one point, she stopped, opened her mouth, and let out this hauntingly beautiful cry – kulning, she called it, and told me it’s a Scandinavian pastoral herding call (typically used by women to call animals back from the mountains; also to communicate with one another). It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”
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