From Russia with love

The Elena Shumilova Story

I’m a great believer in what’s for you won’t pass you in life and that your future is mapped out for you. 2015 saw the incredible adventure story of Russian photographer Elena Shumilova begin. I had two big events that year planned that unfortunately did not happen for several reasons beyond my control, to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I decided that year I was going to do something new in my photography, I wanted to learn new skills and take things to a whole new level. Do something creative, something new and make me see things with new fresh eyes.

Elena Shumilova and me at the start of our first ever international workshop here in Ireland

Elena Shumilova and me at the start of our first ever international workshop here in Ireland

I had been following Elena’s work online for a while at this stage and like many photographers across the world was amazed at the almost movie fairytale look she created in her stunning images. Children, stunning locations fairytale stories, these creations were like something from a Hollywood blockbuster movie. I wanted to learn, learn how to create this magic, even if it was only a small thing like working with the models and how to pose them. It was about 11.00pm Irish time and I sent a message to Elena asking did she have any plans to do a workshop in Ireland or in Europe, I really wanted to learn her magic, I wanted to learn my craft from her.

11.15pm I was ready to log off my computer for the night and head to bed, my computer beeped a facebook notification pop up on my screen, ok I thought to myself one last check at the message to see who it was. Woah……it was Elena Shumilova herself, I didn’t expect a reply back so quick. Elena told me that she had never done a workshop outside of Russia ever and would love to come to Donegal here in Ireland to meet me and do a workshop if I could organise it for her. Would I like to do it be the organiser?

What???? Elena Shumilova wants to come to Ireland? To Donegal???? I took a whole three seconds to realise what was happening and replied back……”YES…..YES….YES” We chatted for about an hour that night talking about photography her work, going through ideas, my head was spinning, in a good way, was this really happening, was this a dream? I asked about attending one of her workshops and now within fifteen minutes I was arranging and organising her first ever International workshop right here in Ballyliffin in Clonmany, Inishowen, Co. Donegal.

Elena Shumilova image created in Ballyliffin, Co. Donegal

Elena Shumilova image created in Ballyliffin, Co. Donegal

I went to bed that night and it must have been 3.00am before I got to sleep thinking about what had just happened. Up first thing next morning as usual and I was wondered did the conversation the previous night really take place? First thing I did when I got back into work was check my messages to see did I really have the chat the night before, yes it really did happen, it was happening. So much to plan, what did I need? Here is just some of what I had to organise:

  • Interpreter, Elena spoke very little English she could read and converse well in text but speaking was going to be a challenge. Where could I get somebody that could speak Russian in my area?

  • Photoshoot location

  • Models

  • Venue to host workshop

  • Clothing

  • Transport

  • Elena had to get visas to travel from Russia to Ireland, etc…..

  • Accommodation

  • Getting Elena from Dublin airport to a quiet village at the very top of Donegal late at night

So much to organise, so much to plan, the multiple checklists started. The workshop was a complete sell out in a number of weeks. We had forty photographers from across the world ascending on the quiet sleepy village of Ballyliffin here in Co. Donegal. So much was the demand that our next workshop was booked out in advance with photographers putting their name on a new list. Thankfully our first workshop was a complete success and we have been improving and making things better all the time. We now keep the experiences and group sizes a lot smaller. The venue chosen to host this workshop was the Strand hotel https://www.ballyliffinstrandhotel.com/ and for a couple of days the hotel was transformed into an international photography learning centre of excellence. Photographers from across the globe came and with the amazing weather that we had for the workshop you could have been mistaken we were in a far away destination with the international languages being spoken.

Irish TV Film Crew

Irish TV Film Crew

Irish TV sent a film crew to Donegal to do a TV feature for their channel about Elenas visit to Ireland. It seems so long ago. This was an warm October evening the weather was amazing.

Left to right Inessa K Mjalenkova (translator for Elena Shumilova) Sean McLaughlin (Model on workshop) Irish TV presenter Frank Galligan, Elena Shumilova and Brendan Bradas O’Donnell (Cameraman / Director / Producer )

Left to right Inessa K Mjalenkova (translator for Elena Shumilova) Sean McLaughlin (Model on workshop) Irish TV presenter Frank Galligan, Elena Shumilova and Brendan Bradas O’Donnell (Cameraman / Director / Producer )

In the forthcoming blogs I will introduce you to some of the amazing models that have worked with including Sean the bearded man. I remember when Elena arrived in the Strand hotel it was late approx 11.30pm at night she had been travelling since about 3.30am that morning from Andreapol her home town approx 400 kilometres from Moscow. She came with her husband and nine month old baby boy.

I felt really sorry for her travelling to a foreign country, its difficult with young children and when you don’t speak the language its a lot harder. One of the photographer’s on the workshop was flying into Ireland for the workshop and kindly gave Elena and her family a lift from Dublin airport to the hotel that night. Next morning after a good nights rest myself and Elena did an equipment check and then went to the photoshoot location which was the backdrop for the workshop, this was at the Doagh famine village in the Isle of Doagh in Clonmany www.doaghfaminevillage.com The owner Pat Doherty you could not meet a more welcoming and kind host and I will be always very grateful for his help in running these workshops. This location is a museum / visitor centre showing what life was like throughout the ages here in Ireland. At Christmas time the location is transformed into a winter wonderland www.donegalslapland.ie definitely a place to visit with the family.

After scouting the location and surrounding area we had a think about ideas for the photoshoot, Elena loved the light here in Donegal it was very special. That evening we went back to the hotel and we had a meet and greet for everyone attending the workshop, the scene was set, these international photographers started arriving and myself and Elena nervously waited as they arrived. When everyone was in place myself and Elena welcomed everyone and had a chat and let everybody know what the plans were for the coming days.

That evening after our meet I had a very special treat planned for everybody, traditional Irish dancers some of which were all Ireland champions and they put on a fine show, this was a great surprise for everyone and not even Elena knew this was going to happen. After the show the traditional musicians arrived and took out their instruments and a really true warm Irish Donegal welcome in style. My idea that I had planned was I wanted to these workshops to be professional but something uniquely different and Irish that was like no other. Very soon photographers that were strangers until that night soon got chatting, they joined in with singing and dancing.

Next morning we all gathered in the conference room and Elena started the first part of her workshop a presentation on her work. After lunch a coach arrived to take all the participants to the photoshoot location at the Doagh Famine Village and we met the amazing models.

Here are some of the images Elena has taken on her visits to Ireland.

Malin stables in Malin town, Co. Donegal supplied the beautiful little model and pony

Malin stables in Malin town, Co. Donegal supplied the beautiful little model and pony

Sean and one of the amazing models on the workshops

Sean and one of the amazing models on the workshops

After an amazing photoshoot for the afternoon we all headed back to the hotel for the evening to relax and chat about the brilliant day we all had. Next morning we were back in class where Elena showed everybody how she edited her images with photoshop. This was an amazing experience to see the master displaying her craft in the presence of photographers from all over the world. Elena was open to questions and was more than happy to share any of her knowledge with those attending, she spent time looking at everybodies work on their laptops.

At the end of workshop there was a lovely surprise Elena decided she would give one photographer a signed copy of one her images she took from Russia to Donegal, this was totally unexpected and a lovely gesture. Who would this lucky photographer be? It was one of the youngest photographers who had only been at photography for a few months and who’s birthday it happened to be that very day, it also so happened that the workshop was a gift from her parents for her birthday and her first time in Ireland. Elena signed the beautiful image and presented it to delighted photographer.

Another surprise also for another very lucky photographer, who didn’t expect or see it coming. Elena presented me a signed copy of one of her works and this was actually one of my all time favourite images.

Elena Shumilova presented me with one of her works of art before she left, totally did not see this coming :)

Elena Shumilova presented me with one of her works of art before she left, totally did not see this coming :)

A lot has happened since that very first workshop in 2015, we have done several each year since then and we have learned a lot, we have made small changes each year to make it a better experience for everyone attending. New ideas, themes, locations, always looking to make these the best in the world. Year on year we have photographers returning again and again to learn from one of the world’s best photographers and also to Ireland, Ballyliffin in Donegal to be exact. A lot of people have said time and time again that they came as strangers but left as very good friends. Something almost spiritual happened, there was a sense of well being and good feeling about life here, where by their worries disappeared and they left inspired with a renewed passion for their love and craft.

2019 promises to be no different, in fact it will be the BEST ever we have some very special new things planned, we have many good now lifelong friends returning. As I said at the start, “I’m a great believer in what’s for you won’t pass you in life and that your future is mapped for you” myself and Elena have met some of the most incredible inspirational people and as much as they have learned here we have learned from you all.

Over the coming weeks I will look at those of have been part of this amazing journey.