"I met a woman in a spiritual centre 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 favourite photographs from along the way.