A Year in the Making (a.k.a.: How I ended up in Northern California teaching two photography workshops.)

Hello. It’s me.

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Sorry I haven’t blogged in a long time. I’ve been sharing more work lately on Facebook and Instagram.

This blog’s for you, Jane Bee (who very sweetly called me out for being delinquent in my blogging) and all the other awesome women who participated in A Year in the Making.

Some of you may have been wondering why I went to Northern California this summer to teach a photography workshop.

And some of you may have been wondering what on earth is “A Year in the Making”.

In order to answer either question, you have to start with the creator of A Year in the Making, my friend, Karen Russell.

Karen Russell is a photographer and teacher who taught an online photography workshop called The Photographers’ Workshop for years.

She never marketed her class once. Her business grew simply by word of mouth. She is such a good teacher that registration would fill up for all the seats in the class within minutes. If you were to print up all the pdf lessons for the 8 week course, you would get a 400+ page text book that I think sets the standard for basic digital photography. She didn’t stop there. She created an easy-to-navigate online forum for discussion about the class and created a culture where people felt safe to take risks and learn.  Combine the class with her long-running, self-disclosing, and beautiful-looking blog and you have the recipe for a strong following.

I took her class in 2009. I have been forever changed by it. She laid a solid foundation for me with photography that I have built on. As a result of her class, I learned to shoot with confidence–especially indoors.

Three years later, she took a big risk and invited me to spend time with her in Oregon in 2012. We hadn’t even talked on the phone before I arrived at the Medford Airport and stayed in her house for five days. I am so thankful that she took that risk.

You can see more about our first face-to-face adventure HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Then she came for a visit to San Antonio 2013 and saw the beauty and brokenness of my life. She loved each of my kids and got to know Greg. My family fell in love with her.

God has built our friendship over the course of years. I am so thankful that I have caught a glimpse of what He is up to in and through her.  My life is richer because she is my friend.

About a year and a half ago, Karen had a big, bold idea for a new class called A Year in the Making. She replaced her much-loved Photographers’ Workshop with a year long, online class for a smaller group of about 60 students. This new forum started meeting online in June of 2015. The ambitious, online forum covered topics from relationships to organization to fitness and nutrition. Of course, there was a heavy photography component as well.  All the participants wrote their life story. All of the participants selected a word to think about and meditate on for the entire year. After interacting virtually for a year, the women in this class met face to face this past June 2016 during two weekends. One group of women arrived the weekend of 6/16. The other group arrived the weekend of 6/23. Karen invited me to help with these two in-person workshops.

Karen has spent hours and hours preparing for this workshop–on the couch, in front of her computer, and running errands.

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She pays attention to the smallest visual detail. Here, she is with my dear friend Lea (who took the class) at JoAnn’s, selecting fabric to tie onto Mason jar drinking glasses for dinner the first night.

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The day the women arrived for the first workshop, Annie, Karen’s daughter, made a huge chalk art sign in the front street welcoming them.

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Josh, Karen’s husband, was instrumental in this workshop. He schlepped our suitcases, drove us around, got their house ready for the first evening’s events, told funny jokes–sometimes twice, and loved his family like crazy.

I see these two choosing truth and light and patience and vulnerability and joy in the midst of a very hard personal season of their life.

Watching them these past few months has been a big source of encouragement for me.  I am officially part of the Josh Downs fan club. I love this photo of them.

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Each woman received a packet like this to open while traveling to the in person meet up.  It was filled with notes from all the other women who were coming. Because I was helping with both workshops, that means I received over 50 notes of encouragement and kindness even before arriving. It was humbling and overwhelming.

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Karen’s friend, Coral, helped with the workshop too.  She is a skilled portrait photographer in southern Oregon who understands light well. She has a great laugh. She’s been a constant friend to Karen. The first night, she needed a few more moments to get ready.

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When the women arrived Thursday night, Karen and Josh’s two daughters gave them a tour of their house.

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Josh and Karen welcomed the ladies in the backyard for dinner.

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Karen and Josh bought a school bus to transport the students for these two weekends. Josh added seats, fixed it up, and got his CDL so he could drive everyone around.

After dinner, the women got on the school bus and headed to McCloud, California–a total surprise to them.

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Located at the foot of Mount Shasta, McCloud is a small town in Northern California known for fly fishing, snow skiing, and clean water.

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We took over the Mercantile Hotel there. It’s where Karen and Josh spent their honeymoon and have celebrated several anniversaries.

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Karen surprised the women by setting up an art show of their own work before their arrival. For many women this was very emotional–especially for those who don’t usually print their images or display them in a large format.

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Friday morning started with surprise videos for each woman’s family.

Children, husbands, daughters, grand kids, parents, and grandparents shared about what made their loved one beautiful to them.

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During the weekend, I documented many of the events; I taught my own class about storytelling; and I coached small groups of women through different shooting scenarios.

Friday, I helped the women with an indoor shooting scenario in beautiful, moody light.

I talked them through my thought process; helped them with settings; touched a bit on composition; and introduced many to my friend, Kelvin.

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Karen thought it would be cool to get these bike carts (a.k.a. surreys) up and running and have the women ride them to a baseball game.

Both the carts and the game were a total surprise also.

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Check out Cathy’s expression up close.

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Paper, rock, scissors to decide who bats first.

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Helena got a great hit.

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Anna–a fierce athlete–scored a home run.

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Karen went all out to try to field Colleen’s ball at first base.

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During workshop #2, the red team photo bombed the losing blue team.

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After the ball game, we pedaled home. I opted for a hike with some of the women in the evening.

I enjoyed getting to know Regina a bit and seeing Cathy in her element.

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Friday night ended with dinner in the crane shed, a cavernous barn-like building at the mill.

Yes, Karen Russell creates event venues where there are none.

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Karen asked Kirk Rudy to share his collection of Native American portraits by photographer, Edward S. Curtis. Curtis created most of his work during the first two decades of the 1900s.

You can learn more about Curtis and this extraordinary collection HERE.

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After Kirk’s lecture, I taught the class I had created for these women, a class on photographic storytelling.

I love to teach but don’t get to do it often. It felt like I had made a delicious meal and got to bring all these women around the table and serve it to them.

I felt so much joy teaching. I’m on the lookout for other places/ ways to teach about photography.

Here’s a screen shot of one of the slides in my presentation that sets out the goals of my class.


Apparently, I get pretty animated when I start teaching.  [Bam]

Thank you, Marilou, for taking this one.

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In the late afternoon, I coached the women through a really tricking shooting scenario–in the dimly lit and cluttered basement of the Mercantile. The students affectionately named it the dungeon.

Then we headed outdoors for some more traditional portraits in abundant light.

Here’s Dana. . .

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…and Karen.

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The first Saturday night, I was sick so I took the night off.

The second Saturday night, I joined the group by a pond and a cabin with breathtaking views of Mt. Shasta for dinner and dancing. During dinner, I listened in on a conversation between two courageous women who were both systematically sexually abused by a family member. I listened as they encouraged each other and ministered to one another–sharing concrete ways they fight to heal moment by moment. I believe every single word they said. And I want them to keep fighting to heal.

I ended one of the best days of my life dancing like crazy. My kids don’t believe me that I pulled it off.  Maybe if you were there and witnessed it, you could add a comment to this blog post to try to convince them of the truth.

So glad Coral got a few photos. Here’s proof that I will do just about anything to make Karen smile. Thank you, Coral!

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Tired yet? The Karen Russell train is fun, but it moves really fast.

She challenged all the women to run or walk a 5 K.

The morning started with some dynamic stretching.

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The first weekend, my friend Lea had a super strong run. She has never been a runner and was reluctant to even start training.

Her husband, Damon, encouraged her to try and they started running together.

It was so wonderful to see her heading down the road looking stronger than I’ve ever seen her.

This woman has had a huge influence on me. She knows me deeply and loves me well. Quite simply, I want to be like her. It seemed like Lea’s participation in AYITM was a gift to everyone she met.

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The women hoisted her up to celebrate her victory.

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At the end of the second workshop, Lisa gifted Karen with a handmade quilt that she made using fabric that we sent her.

I know Karen well enough to know this gift would pretty much blow her mind. And it did.

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After dinner in Dunsmuir. . .

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. . . the women walked about 2 blocks up a steep hill to their final surprise, the California Theatre (est. 1926) lit up and ready for a slideshow viewing of images from the weekend.

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Tyler and Dodee helped us set up. I think I would have lost sleep had I not asked to photograph them.


They surprised us by asking their friend Billy to play some piano as we all arrived.

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On the one hand, I poured myself out for these women for two weekends. I expended myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. I did things that felt really uncomfortable to me. At times, I felt spent.

On the other hand, these women poured themselves into me. These women cared for me and supported me in all kinds of ways. I cherish all the moments they said yes to learning and trying new things. I cherish every single conversation I had–conversations where the women opened up to me and created a place for me to open up to them. I cherish all the dancing and laughing. I cherish every single note I received during the workshop. I have read each one more than one time. My eyes fill with tears of joyful gratitude when I read them. I cherish all the important words of encouragement and clarity. I cherish the Fage breaks and high kicks. I felt alive and free.

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Can’t believe how fast those days came and went.

Thank you, Alison, Angie, Barb, Camille, Cara, Celia, Colette, Dana L., Dana N., Donna, Elaine, Gina, Ifan, Karen, Kellie, Keri, Lan, Lea, Lisa, Liz, Maria, Michele, Rachael, Robin, Sharra, Sunny, Tanya, Tara, Wendi, and Jules. Thank you, Andria, Anna, Cathi, Cathy, Colleen, Crystal, Debbie, Helena, Jane, Jen, Joanie, Joyce, Kari, Kelley, Kim, Kristen, Kristym, Leslie, Liora, Lisa, Maria, Michelle, Nancy, Rachelle, Regina, Stephanie, Suzi, Vicky, Coral, Nicole, Marilou, and Karen.

Hope many of our paths cross again.


22 Responses to “A Year in the Making (a.k.a.: How I ended up in Northern California teaching two photography workshops.)”

  1. Kellie says:

    Thank YOU Rachel Chaney! Your photos are amazing. Love you!

  2. Jane says:

    Thank you Rachel for putting into words and pictures just how special this year was for all of us. Meeting and learning from you was a special highlight for me. And I wish I had pictures to prove it, but I can promise your kids, that you had some AMAZING dance moves. Thanks for all the love, laughter and learning!!! And thanks for blogging!

  3. colette says:

    Rachel- it was a dream to meet you and to learn from you and the photos you shared are beyond amazing! I thank you for the work you put in and for sharing with us & making us FEEL smart!! lol! I loved your Storytelling talk and will definitely start to date Kelvin! Your work is OUTSTANDING! hugs

  4. Lan says:

    Rachel, your story…our story, is just beautiful!!!! You’ve shown and told it so well. I loved being a part of the first workshop with you and do hope you find ways to teach others because you have a magical talent. Will definitely be following you and hope we get the chance to meet again. You are so fit and strong, loved your crossfit post on the forum.

  5. Colleen says:

    Rachel…you simply wrote the story and made sure each chapter was properly documented. I love the way your photography tells a story and I don’t think you missed a thing. I hated seeing all those empty clothes pins on the last day. I was a pleasure meeting you, learning from you was remarkable and but hanging out with you made my weekend. Thanks for all your hard work and dedication to making it an unforgettable weekend.

  6. Gina Harpur says:

    What a special time we all had together. Thank you for documenting so well for us. Your words and photographs summarize our weekend perfectly. I aspire to be like you some day! Looking forward to more classes or creative projects with you.

  7. Tara Adams says:

    Thanks for a great long summary Rachel. It was so very special to meet you, and learn from you and have a tiny sliver of time to get to know you a little.

    I love your heart for women. I love your heart for your family. I love your heart for Jesus.

    And thank you for pushing through your sickness and being with us. xx

  8. Rachelle Sims says:

    Rachel, what an awesome post! And I can attest for your family, you CUT A RUG out there Saturday night! Brass Monkey was you’re un-doing 🙂 🙂 It was such a pleasure getting to know you and learn from you~ until we meet again! BAM!

  9. Rachelle Sims says:

    PS ~ I totally had to screen shot to my husband that his picture made your blog! lol. He was non-plussed about the whole thing, but I’m STILL giddy 🙂 lol

  10. Leslie says:

    What a beautiful way you captured such a magical weekend. And, like Jane, I can attest to your incredible dancing ability. You have moves!!! Your work was such an amazing gift for us all, and I’m beyond grateful that you poured yourself into the workshops and shared your talent with us. It was a joy to learn from you and alongside you.

  11. DanaL says:

    RACHEL CHANEY! Love, love, love! I’ve always been a huge fan of your work, now I’m an even bigger fan of YOU, the person. You are so very lovely and special! Thank you for sharing your photos, your heart, and your knowledge. Much love my friend! xoxo

  12. Pamela says:

    Oh my goodness. This made me cry, and I wasn’t even there!! Unfortunately I couldn’t commit to AYITM, but I knew that those ladies that were involved would have nothing short of a mind blowing experience. I am so blessed that I could attend a Hometown Workshop a couple years ago. Anything Karen touches turns to magic. Everything Karen touches turns to magic. I’m so glad she shares that with us. Thank you for sharing this experience with us!

  13. Liz Hartrich says:

    Love the photos, Rachel. So many fond memories of people I love, and that one at the bottom of the hill from the theater is amazing. Thank you!

  14. Lisa Garlick says:

    Fat lady sang on that last photo! Rachel…it was an extreme pleasure to be with you during AYITM. Also…amazeballs dancing skillz! Xoxo

  15. Regina says:

    Two packs of women became proudly became 60 predators on the prowl (LOL I have Mr. Popper’s Penguins in my head) after just one lesson. We are all interested in dating Kelvin and we all felt a renewed sense of freedom as we danced beside A still lake while Mt. Shasta giggled in the background. You made me want to party hard and celebrate music like I always wanted to celebrate music! Thanks for letting go and sharing yourself and your amazing instruction with us. Thanks for documenting our journey and thanks for loving us!

  16. Helena says:

    Rachel! Absolutely love how you captured our amazing retreat with beautiful images. And the way you explained what A Year In The Making meant for us. Thank you so much for the valuable lessons and your fun way of teaching. And you are absolutely the BEST dancer ever 😉 Those moves, wowsa!
    If you ever come to Italy, you know where to find me. xoxo

  17. Karen Russell says:

    RC – I love the storyteller in you, I love the teacher in you, I love the ‘hug-break-er’ in you, I love the loyal friend in you, I love the epic rug-cutter in you, I love the truth-speaker in you, I love the verbal thesaurus in you, and I love the Jesus-follower in you. Thank you for blessing my life with everyone one of those things.

    And tell those kiddos that Karen said their mama can tear things up on the dance-floor (but we’ll get Coral’s photos to prove it).

  18. Stephanie says:

    Rachel- Thank you for sharing ALL of your gifts with us so that we can ALL grow our own gifts. You are just plain “COOL”! (and I KNOW you will not let that go to your head) Thank you for being you & for letting it rip on the dance floor- it may not have been your comfort zone but It sure didn’t look like it! I hope that we will have the opportunity to cross paths again some day! XOXO

  19. Joanie says:

    Rachel, what a wonderful description of an amazing experience! Thanks so much for sharing your talent & storytelling vision with us. I knew your take on our AYITM story would be fantastic and this post was!
    Kids, I can attest to your mom’s excellent dance moves! Was such fun to see that side of you!

  20. Michelle says:

    Rachel, Thank you so much for telling this great story. I couldn’t wait to see how you would share it with others. You have an amazing gift! I learned so much from you. It was great to see you let loose on the dance floor… I hope to see you again… I will be waiting on the prowl like a Tiger. BAM!!

  21. Barb says:

    You are a great storyteller! Both your photos and words capture the essence of our amazing collective experience. Thank you so much for being a part of it, capturing it, and teaching all of us and sharing your many gifts. You are a very special women Rachel Chaney!

  22. Anna says:

    Rachel, it was AMAZING to meet you. I only wish there was more time at the in-person to talk one-on-one and share each other’s stories. This post is an AMAZING gift to us. I hope to grow up and be a storyteller like you.

    P.S. don’t tell anyone I’m dating this soon…Kelvin is the man! lol

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