Deborah — Nyack, New York
Witches have long been portrayed in popular culture as dark and sinister beings — often with warted noses, green skin, and shrill voices that can make your blood curdle. But for photographer Frances F. Denny, the word "witch" carries a more relatable and cordial connotation.
For her portrait series Major Arcana: Witches in America, Denny traveled from coast to coast to track down people who identify as witches. What she discovered goes far beyond the cultural stereotypes of how witches are often represented. Denny spoke with BuzzFeed News about her experience meeting these witches and shared with us a selection of portraits that help shatter the stereotypes of witches today.
What spurred your interest in witches?
Frances F. Denny: Six years ago, I was researching my family’s ancestry and history in New England for a project that became my 2016 monograph, Let Virtue Be Your Guide. While looking at my family tree, I discovered that not only was my 10th great-grandfather Samuel Sewall one of the central judges in the infamous Salem witch trials, but my eighth great-grandmother Mary Bliss Parsons was an accused “witch” about 20 years earlier in Northampton, Massachusetts. That ancestral coincidence felt significant, and I mentally filed it away for later consideration.
Dia — New York City
A few years later, I read historian Stacy Schiff’s book on the Salem witch trials and was reminded that one of the central characters was my ancestor Samuel Sewall. In her book, Schiff makes 17th-century Puritan New England come alive — what a dark and fearful place!
My imagination ignited from there, and I began my inquiry into the archetype of the witch. Three questions form the basis of that inquiry: What does this word “witch” mean to modern women? Who calls herself a witch now? And what does it mean to practice witchcraft?
How does one meet a witch?
FD: I hate to say it, but in some ways this project was like one massive networking endeavor. I met my subjects largely through word of mouth and referrals. Once I had met and photographed about 12 witches, the project grew pretty organically. I found my earliest subjects through people I knew and by scouting people at WitchsFest in NYC. It was a little intimidating to walk up to complete strangers and ask them if they were witches, but it worked.
As for the portrait sessions: While I do a lot of directing during the shoot, I don’t do much of any styling. I ask my subjects to choose the location of the shoot and to decide themselves what they’d like to wear. It’s important to me that they have a hand in how they’re represented, especially in the context of this project. And I almost always begin the shoots with an informal interview so I can get to know them and hopefully put them at ease before I take out my camera.
Can anybody become a witch, or is witchcraft something you're born into?
FD: My project includes many versions of witches — there really isn’t only one way to be one, and there are no prerequisites or formal rules for how to become a witch. However, a Wiccan Witch is typically required to go through certain steps to earn her “initiation.”
Wicca is a neo-pagan religion; they capitalize the W in “Witch.” There are many practicing sects of Wicca, and there is a general trajectory one takes to become a Witch. While there is the notion of a “hereditary witch” in the world of witchcraft, as in one coming from a matrilineal line of witches, it is by no means a defining characteristic for most.
Truly, there really isn’t a singular way to be a witch.
Kir — Brooklyn
To me, witchcraft in all its forms is about the cultivation of an internal charge, sight, or power. That power can be directed within, perhaps as someone casting a protective spell for herself as she navigates an unknown challenge, or outwards towards others, say in the healing capacity of a green witch herbalist. Witchcraft can be a solitary practice or in tandem with others — perhaps in a coven, though not always. It’s up to the individual to decide how she wants to practice it.
Serpentessa — Esopus, New York
How did your experiences with these witches compare to your expectations going into this project?
FD: By and large, I found the witch community to be extremely generous with their time as well as quite open and trusting of me. My subjects seemed genuinely excited to share this aspect of themselves. Each person is different, but I love the process of getting to know my subjects and drawing them out.
While I definitely encountered a few prickly personalities, there were only a few people who I felt truly uncomfortable with — one confessed herself to be a psychopath during the interview. But for the most part the people I met through this project were warm, hospitable, and incredibly generous.
What do you hope people will take away from these images?
FD: I hope that my pictures will change people’s conceptions about who and what a witch is. There is so much more to modern witches than the old stereotypes and misconceptions allow — that witches worship Satan, hex their enemies, and are up to no good, or that they belong to the hippie-dippie “light and love” sect. The beautiful thing about witchcraft is the malleable, individualized nature of it.
It just isn’t one thing, no matter how you look at it.