Loved, revered, and feared — this is the way of the witch from time immemorial to our present day.
Although they may be any gender, witches have become emblematic of the feminine spirit, often vilified as handmaidens of the devil for refusing to kowtow to patriarchal constraints. While witches went underground to protect themselves from persecution, torture, and death, they have always been an integral part of society, immortalized in popular culture, literature, and art. Recently, many photographers have started reconsidering witches as a culturally charged muse, as the archetype embodies the spirit of the independent woman who wields power on her own terms — reclaiming the maligned and marginalized figure from the clutches of those who would sooner destroy her.
Over the past decade, the rise of digital technology combined with the decline of the empire under the failures of late capitalism has created new spaces for witches to re-emerge and find communion among fourth-wave feminists. “Most of our religious institutions, government structures, and businesses are still run by straight, white, cis-gendered men, which means that people who resemble them are still being centered in our collective narratives,” says Pam Grossman, host of “The Witch Wave” podcast and author of Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power (Gallery Books).
“Witchcraft peaks during tumultuous times, when people are looking to have more agency over their lives the more disillusioned they become with the institutions that are supposed to be protecting them. It offers a model that centers the feminine and the ‘other.’ [Witches have] wisdom, intuition, and talents that run counter to a lot of what the patriarchy deems valuable, and also can meet in a coven, which is a far less hierarchical model of shared power.”
As former Getty Images’ Director of Visual Trends, Grossman understands the impact of visibility and representation on the way we understand the world and our place in it. “A lot of my work focused on creating imagery collections that broke gender stereotypes, and spotlit representations of dynamic, diverse women,” Grossman says. “I’m interested in empowering anyone who runs counter to oppressive, narrow, patriarchal ideals. I think we all benefit when alternative modes of being are not only encouraged, but celebrated.”
In recent years, many women and non-binary photographers have been documenting witches to transform our ideas by controlling the narrative. In the on-going series Verhexhen, American photographer Jennifer Loeber makes photographs that confront our assumptions, fears, and fantasies about women and the iconography of the witch. Featuring portraits of real witches alongside a green-cast picture of a woman dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West for Halloween, Loeber invites viewers to examine how pop culture has shaped our beliefs, and why the idea of a woman liberated from the strictures of the Church and state pose an existential threat to the patriarchy.
“We may not be Christian here, but we still pray,” Iyawo Orisa Omitola is quoted saying in the keynote address of the 2018 Black Witch Convention in Baltimore by The Atlantic. As some young Black women leave the Church to follow the spiritual traditions of their African ancestors, they offer a poignant parallel to that of white Millennials. Ever since slaveowners systematically stripped them of all human rights, The Church has long played a political, religious, and cultural role in African American life. In this context, the practice of traditional spirituality can be seen as a form of liberation from the oppression of women by certain segments of the Church, while simultaneously reconnecting them with their African roots.
In the on-going Black Spirituality Project, Afrolatinx-American photographer Felicita “Felli” Maynard documents POC Millennial women who are reclaiming their ancestral heritage. In a culture that has doubly vilified the practice of witchcraft by Black women, Maynard’s portraits offer a humanistic view, removing the racist overlays while preserving the mystical power of the spiritual. By making visible those who have otherwise been misrepresented or erased, Maynard restores them to the pantheon of witchcraft. “Among their tools, they feel powerful,” Maynard reveals on their website. “No mission is too great, for within them all elements come together to create balance.”
For American photographer, Frances F. Denny, the personal is political: while researching her ancestry, she discovered her eighth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons was accused of witchcraft while living in Northhampton, MA, in 1674 — just two decades before the Salem Witch Trials of 1692–1693, which were presided over by Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, Denny’s tenth great grand-grandfather.
Being the descendant of both the victim and the oppressor proved to be too powerful a coincidence for Denny to ignore. She began to delve deeper into the history of witchcraft and its modern incarnation to create the series, Major Arcana: Witches in America. Traveling across the United States, Denny photographed women, genderfluid, and trans individuals who practice witchcraft, be it grounded in religions like Wicca and Voudou or self-defined beliefs. Denny’s portraits are as expansive as the word “witch” itself, providing an umbrella under which mysticism, occultism, politically-oriented activism, polytheism, spell-craft, and plant-based healing practitioners all thrive.
“It’s important that contemporary witches are shown as being intelligent, compassionate, rational, and pragmatic — and that we are everywhere,” Grossman says. “I know witches from all backgrounds and who have every job you can imagine, from lawyers to accountants to artists to teachers. And none of them are diabolical or want to harm anyone. They want to grow and fortify themselves, and live more meaningful, connected lives.”