Book fills a void, provides an outlet for county women

Phoebe Janzen and dog Charlie at home in Hillsboro with photos and friends. “I just wanted women to let me take photos and put them in the book, so it didn’t matter what you did or didn’t do—just that you were,” she says.
Phoebe Janzen and dog Charlie at home in Hillsboro with photos and friends. “I just wanted women to let me take photos and put them in the book, so it didn’t matter what you did or didn’t do—just that you were,” she says.
Phoebe Janzen needed a purpose to occupy her mind as she adjusted to life without her husband, Steve, who succumbed to cancer in November 2014.

“I just woke up one day and said I’m going to start taking pictures of women in Marion County, and just find what they feel brings them joy, what things are beautiful to them,” she said.

“I just thought it was something to keep me busy, and I needed to stay busy.”

Few people could be better equipped for the topic. Janzen grew up in Burns, went to high school in Peabody, taught school in Marion, lived south of Florence and now resides in Hillsboro.

As for photography, she said she’s been taking pictures since she was a little kid.

“They weren’t good necessarily, but I enjoyed it—lots of pictures,” she said. “I remember waiting to get the film back and then it’s, oh, it’s not really so exciting as I thought it would be.’”

Janzen has come a long since then, not to mention the completion of her project, “Women of Marion County,” a 184-page, hard-cover book that captures images of, and about, 92 women who live in, come from, or have an appreciation for, the county she calls home.

Surprising response

To Janzen’s surprise, the project grew beyond expectations, and almost took on a life of its own.

“I asked a few people initially, then I started putting it out there on Face­­­book,” she said about her start.

Janzen’s posts generated responses. A lot of them. Her initial goal was to include 75 women; she ended up with 92.

“I finally had to quit,” she said. “I know a lot of women felt at first like it would be conceited to volunteer for the photo. And some people were saying, ‘I nominate so-and-so; she’s done whatever.’

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“Then I’d say it doesn’t have anything to do with what you’ve done—it’s just that you are. God loves us just the way we are, we don’t have to do anything.

She added: “I just wanted women to let me take photos and put them in the book, so it didn’t matter what you did or didn’t do—just that you were.”

Photography skills

The project prompted Janzen to upgrade her photography skills. She first curried advice from Jim Griggs, who owns Selective Focus Photography in McPherson.

“He’s has traveled all over, shooting people in Africa, Machu Picchu, and all kinds of places,” she said.

Janzen actually met Griggs and wife Cindy through “Freeze Your Buns Off,” a mid-winter photography shoot at Maxwell Game Preserve near Canton.

“They took me under their wing,” Janzen said of the couple.

She also took a series of classes at CityArts in Wichita.

“I went through all the levels they have,” Jan­zen said. “The instructor was Douglas Robertson, a master photographer—which is a big deal.”

“I took all those classes. At Level 0 you come in and learn what the buttons are on your camera; then you go all the way to (Level) 5 and go on different activities. It was good. I’m glad I did that.”

Launched in 2014

Janzen formally launched the project in March 2014. She was surprised how quickly it caught on.

“People would see the photos on Facebook, saw what I was doing, and would volunteer,” Janzen said. “It took a lof of guts, really. They couldn’t decide what photos I’d use—it was up to me.”

Janzen did encounter a few regrets along the way.

“Some of them would volunteer, but we could never work out a time (for the shoot),” she said. “One woman I feel terrible about had just turned 80—she had signed up and somehow I missed it. She would have been great for the book, too.”

Asked what was it about her project that struck a chord with women, Janzen said she wasn’t sure.

“They were all really nervous about getting pictures taken, but I think deep down they kind of wanted to do it because they like to look at pictures.”

Janzen gave the volunteers all the photos she took at their particular shoot.

In addition to the photos, Janzen asked her volunteers to share about themselves by responding to a series of requests: Give a one-word descriptor of yourself; tell me what brings you joy; and what your definition of beauty is.

“People went from one sentence to several paragraphs, so there’s a variety of responses,” Janzen said.

The women often would ask Janzen if their responses were what she was looking for.

“I’d respond, I don’t have any preconceived notion—it’s what you want to say,” she said. “And then they’d say, ‘Oh, dang!’”

Janzen did her photo shoots at the sites her volunteers identified.

“I had three women from Parkside (Homes), and they were really cute,” she said. “I put them all together on the same page just because it’s kind of hard to get plenty of poses. They were interesting too. I think the oldest was 102.”

Several women volunteered as a group, including her first invitation: women from Janzen’s own church.

One group had grown up to together in the former community of Antelope. Another group lived in the same small neighborhood in Marion. Still another group of women had played Bunko together for years.

“I think it give them a little more confidence to do it together,” she said.

Looking back

How does Janzen think about the project now that it is complete?

Women of Marion County Cover
Women of Marion County Cover
“It was fun and it was a learning experience for me, too,” she said. “There are some pictures in the book that are not as good because I didn’t know what I was doing (at first). But as it progressed, the ones I took later are a lot better quality.”

Her volunteers seemed pleased by the results, too.

“I had one woman say, ‘I never felt attractive before, I always felt I was homely.’ She said, ‘You know, this made me feel like I was beautiful.”

A modest goal

Janzen has a modest goal when the book is released for purchase this month.

“If I break even, that’s all I care about,” she said. “It was a fun project, and it really kind of focused me and got me going beyond sitting around feeling sorry for myself.”

And what did she conclude about the women of Marion County?

“The women I talked to care about their family,” Janzen said. “The love of family was almost ununanimously what brings them joy.

“There’s also a strong faith, a love of God, and they saw beauty in the natural surroundings,” she added.

“Nobody really saw (beauty) as how we look, or anything like that,” she added. “It was about things and people, and how they treat others.

“I know if this (project) was done in an urban area, it would be totally different. But for Marion County, and the women that I talked to, this is kind of how it was.”