SPOTLIGHT: Photographer Polly White on her latest series exploring Wales' historic witch trials

In this interview, Polly White discusses her latest and ongoing series, “As Dusk Crawls,” which explores the witch trials of the 17th century in Wales. Polly reveals how she came up with the title behind her work, why winter plays an important role in her series and what, besides photography, inspires her to continue creating images.

Words: Anna Cunningham @annacunningham_photography

Images: Polly White

Anna Cunningham: Can you tell us what your project is about? 

Polly White: Titled “As Dusk Crawls,” this ongoing series explores the witch trials – or lack of them – in the 17th century in Wales. Unlike the rest of Europe at the time (and some parts of America), Wales had no “witch hunt” or mass executions, and I wanted to explore this unique phenomenon within these images. Influenced by the guilty verdicts of eight Welsh witches (only one sentenced to death), I attempt to challenge Arcadian ideals of landscape, to create a discourse between the beauty of nature and the darker undertones of folklore. I wanted to capture this sense of the paradoxical, to build a narrative that weaves in the allure of the pastoral but also introduces a foreboding sense of “other” in the environment. For the last couple of years now my work has centred around folklore and history, which is ironic as I was never interested in history in school!

AC:  How did you choose the title “As Dusk Crawls” for your project?

PW: I always find titling projects difficult, as I want to draw people in but not be overly obvious about what the body of work will portray. This series originally had a different title, but this version comes from an Emily Dickinson poem called “How the Old Mountains Drip with Sunset” – the line is, “how a small dusk crawls on the village till the houses blot.” My mum has a book of her poems that I started reading for some inspiration during lockdown, and as soon as I read that line, I felt it really resonated with the body of work I was creating. The word “crawl” specifically – that personification of the landscape really rang true for the way I wanted to represent that darker underbelly of the natural world. Emily Dickinson was renowned for embedding these darker themes in her work and actually mentions witchcraft in some of her poems, which is interesting as she was a Christian.

AC: You have mentioned on your Instagram that you feel more inspired during winter. Why do you think this is?

PW: I shoot a lot with flash so the shorter days suit this way of photographing, and characteristics of winter like mist, snow and frost provide a more atmospheric setting, which is something I strive for in a lot of my image-making. But it depends on what I’m working on at the time. As this is the longest project I’ve worked on, I do get that surge of inspiration when the darker days come around again, although there are hints of spring in this series. 

AC: You seem to gravitate towards photographing in black and white. Is there any reason for that?

PW: You mean aside from the extortionate price of colour film these days?! Haha. In all seriousness though, I never used to shoot black and white, I think it was only in my last year in uni that I started using it more. Whether this correlates with the price increase or not I’m not sure! For this project specifically, removing colour meant removing some of the familiarity of the landscape, helping me to uncover the more sinister elements of the environment.

AC: Did you envision this project being in black and white, or is this something that came with time?

PW: I actually didn’t, no – originally I had some colour photos in this project too, and the plan was to include both. But when I wasn’t able to complete the project in the time that I planned, when uni got cut short with Covid, I didn’t have enough colour images (or maybe just not enough that worked coherently) to include, so I stuck with the black and white shots. I’m still adding to this project and playing around with sequencing, but since then I haven’t envisioned introducing colour images back into this series.

AC: What, outside of photography, inspires you to continue creating photographs?

PW: As is obvious from my work, nature is where I get most of my inspiration from, specifically back home in rural Wales. It’s usually places that are a bit more off the beaten track too. I can go months feeling a real lack of motivation to shoot but as soon as I’m back in the countryside it all comes rushing back. It feels like a reset for me and I try to maintain that feeling for as long as possible once I’ve left.


Polly White’s website can be found here, and keep up to date with her via her Instagram