The seed of "Major Arcana: Witches in America" was planted six years ago while I was researching an earlier body of work that examined my family ancestry in New England. I discovered that my 10th great-grandfather presided as one of the central judges in the infamous Salem witch trials. Coincidentally, my eighth great-grandmother, a woman named Mary Bliss Parsons, had been tried for witchcraft in Northampton, Massachusetts, only a few decades prior.
Several years later, I was reminded of this strange ancestral coincidence while reading historian Stacy Schiff's account of the Salem witch trials [The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem], in which my ancestor, Justice Samuel Sewall, plays a prominent role. I began thinking about the witch as an archetypal figure — one that has persistently captured imaginations (and haunted nightmares) for centuries. From the 17th century witch hunts in Europe, to the Salem trials, to the ways in which the witch seems to populate movies and television decade after decade (like The Wizard of Oz, Bewitched, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), it's clear that the witch evokes a distinctly female power. It wasn't long before I began wondering about the contemporary individuals in the neo-pagan community (and beyond) who have reclaimed the word "witch" for themselves.
I embarked on a three-year portrait project photographing women around the U.S. who identify as witches. And since my longtime focus as an artist examines facets of female selfhood, I limited myself to female-identifying witches (though I also included trans and genderqueer individuals). I began by researching neo-paganism, Wicca and other cultural currents related to modern witchcraft (like tarot, astrology, spell craft, etc.). With the help of a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, I travelled around the country to meet, interview and photograph modern witches.
The resulting body of work, "Major Arcana: Witches in America," explores the various ways the notion of witch-ness belongs to those who claim it, representing the witch as a self-sought identity that both empowers and politicizes its bearer. Each person I photographed embodies a different kind of witchcraft, whether aligned with a religion (like Wicca) or a self-defined practice. No two individuals inhabit the term "witch" in quite the same way, but many consider themselves pagan, and engage in a diversity of traditions, including mysticism, the occult, politically-oriented activism, polytheism, ritualized "spell craft," and plant-based healing. Among those included in the series are self-proclaimed green witches, white witches, kitchen witches, hedge witches and sex witches. "Witch" is a mutable term, belonging to a wide spectrum of people. "Major Arcana" reflects that spectrum, re-framing the witch as a feminist archetype and the contemporary embodiment of a defiant, unsanctioned femininity.
The deeper I dove into witchcraft, the more I came to understand that the modern witchcraft movement parallels the feminist movement. While second-wave feminism swelled in the Sixties, so too did goddess-worshipping pagan religions that privileged the feminist cause. In 2019, both witchcraft and feminism are newly of interest to millennials. This is of concern to some longtime practitioners of both movements who resent the mainstream appropriation and commodification of their heretofore fringe practices and beliefs. On the other hand, some old-guard pagan witches welcome the newfound interest in witchcraft for its destigmatizing effect. To publicly be a witch invites disparagement in some parts of the U.S. — so too with being a feminist.
Today, as the current wave of feminism crests, one characterized by political activism, #MeToo and intersectionality — not to mention a certain cultural trendiness — witchcraft is suddenly relevant again to the mainstream. As "feminist" is a nebulous, shifting term, so too is "witch" — their meanings are defined by each bearer individually, and are politicized in the very communities they help create.