Photographer Jessie Robertson’s exhibit, entitled Witches of Vancouver: Coming out of the Broom Closet, features 12 modern witches and their stories about their identities. She wanted to explore people who identified as witches and what that meant to them.
“I was inspired by the Humans of New York style, showing portraits that were a glimpse into these people’s lives,” says the Vancouver photographer, referring to the popular blog that features interviews and portraits of average New Yorkers.
Ms. Robertson’s series made its debut in late October at Liquid Amber Tattoo & Art Collective in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood. The third and final showcasing of the photo exhibit is Friday at the collective.
As much as this was her passion project, Ms. Robertson wanted it to be a collaborative process with local witches. “I wanted them to show whatever side they wanted to show," she says. "We all have many facets of ourselves, and I wanted it to be an authentic side of themselves.”
Ms. Robertson herself has been a witch for 20 years, but a solitary practitioner for most of that time. She only began seeking community a few years before pursuing the project. When she began looking for local witches to participate in the series, she was surprised by the enthusiasm and support.
“Everybody involved in the project wanted to document these stories because all the stories have been lost, burned away.”
As a teenager going through hard times, Ms. Robertson began learning and reading about witchcraft. For her, this was a time of self-discovery: listening to herself and the world around her.
“It’s a connection to the Earth, the cosmos, the elements, and myself in a way that taps into something that I work with to help shape my life.”
As she grew older and continued practising her craft and performing rituals, her identity as a witch connected to her politics.
“It’s a feminist movement. It’s a rebellion against the patriarchy. It’s a reclaiming, pushing back to what the patriarchy wanted us to be. It’s not just women, it’s all genders, all colours, cultures.”
In the beginning, Ms. Robertson envisaged this project just as a photo series. But she recalls when her partner, filmmaker Luvia Petersen, expressed the need to preserve the stories being shared, too.
“She was pacing in the other room and she burst out, ‘Wait, stop talking. We have to get this on tape. These stories need to be told, it can’t just be pictures.’”
From then on, Ms. Petersen joined Ms. Robertson on her photo shoots, filming the interviews and behind-the-scene footage. After a few months of filming, with help from fellow B.C. filmmaker Derek Langer, the three decided to adapt it into a documentary, to be released in 2020.
Despite mainstream perceptions of what witches are, Ms. Robertson’s photo series depicts their diverse definitions and identities. “Even to all the witches, it means something different.”
Ms. Robertson says some people assume witches are devil worshippers, but it is not true for a lot of them. “It’s a whole thing where Hollywood and religion have created witches as being the spawn of the devil, as a fear tactic.”
Ms. Robertson’s photo series challenges misconceptions people may have about witches and witchcraft.
The photographer also wants to confront mainstream media’s portrayal of a witch as an old, white woman. Her photos try to capture each witch as her authentic self, connecting to her practice.
“There’s all these stereotypes about what witches are," Ms. Robertson says. "I didn’t want to necessarily continue that visual reference. However, if that’s what somebody wanted to show, then I was all for it.”