CEPA Gallery has outdone itself with its current exhibit. Truth be told, the project is much more than an exhibit – it’s a transformational undertaking for those who created it, and an important lesson for those that view it. The project – Odyssey | Warriors Come Home – curated by photographer Brendan Bannon – began with an intensive retreat for 36 combat veterans, who came together to get to know one another and learn the framework of the course, before delving into the workshops that were to follow.
The mission? Each of the returning veterans was given an opportunity to explore and explain their journeys home through photography. In order to complete the exercise, each of the participants was given a, EOS 5D Mark III camera, to keep, courtesy of Canon. Weekly seminar classes were held in order to help them to brainstorm the assignment and experiment with the cameras. Julian Chinana, a Marine Corp Veteran, co-taught the workshops.
The result of the process showcased the different struggles and successes that the combat vets were experiencing since returning to “life as normal”. One of the class assignments asked the vets to photograph ‘what does home mean to you?’ The resulting photos were incredibly diverse – hopeful, scary, morose, electrifying, ambiguous… the list goes on. It’s one of those You have to see them in person in order to get a handle on their diverse and mind-blowing nature.
The culmination of all of this, according to Bannon, who was also the lead teacher, is the exhibit at the Market Arcade. “It’s the consequence of all of this work,” he told me. “The result of the four workshops is all there, up on the wall, in sequence, from images of family life before leaving for combat to their odyssey home. The exhibit shows what each of the veterans was fighting for, the battles on the field and within, the seemingly never ending journey home, reconnecting with family, attempting to adjust to society as the rest of us know it… and daily routines, survivor’s guilt, dealing with PTSD… it’s all there.”
As we talked about the exhibit, Bannon invited one of the participating vets to join in on the conversation – Brianna Robinson. Robinson told me that the project changed her life. She went from carrying a gun to carrying a camera, over time. At one point in her life, she owned a camera, but it broke four years ago and that was that – she couldn’t afford to purchase a new one. The exhibit put a camera back into her hands, and empowered her to take action. Not only did she connect with other veterans for the first time, she started living again. She went from living more of a secluded life to participating in group activities.
As I conversed with Bannon, Robinson suddenly hopped up from her seat and began taking photos of us talking to one another. “I would never do something like that,” she said. “I’m shooting like crazy these days, even though the project is over. I would not have a camera in my hands right now if it was not for this opportunity. It’s a great tool for me. It’s hard to dump your emotions onto people, but with a camera I can do that in another way – it’s a new medium. I’m more outgoing – my camera is like a service dog for others. It’s emotional security. Isolation is one of my biggest challenges. The camera opens doors for me.”
One of the biggest takeaways for me is the community that developed through the project. Robinson said that she is seeing many of the other veterans using their cameras to this day. “They get together to shoot around WNY, or for monthly photo classes,” Robinson told me. “Everyone has stuck with it to some extent. That’s something that we never could have anticipated. It’s therapeutic and empowering. This camera [pointing] and the project gave me the ability to show my work in the 2019 Infringement Festival. Other vets are exhibiting, shooting jobs, and have collectively found a new tool for service.”
Another component of the Odyssey | Warriors Come Home is the banner element. Each of the participants was provided with a cyanotype light sensitive banner, which could be manipulated by laying it in direct sun for 12 minutes. For the final assignment the combat veterans were invited to make life sized self portraits. The results are a series of blue shroud like images that gather the bodies impression and significant objects that help to tell the warriors stories. These banners are now dramatically hanging throughout the atrium of the Market Arcade Building in a unique display of public art.
“These are people who put their bodies on the line,” explained Bannon. “They were literally willing to lay their bodies down for something that they believed in – they signed up to protect their country, to defend their families, to defend a way of life. They experienced things in their teens that no one could ever comprehend. These are the physical realities of what a warrior is… the banner process is unpredictable, but a predictably beautiful way to make an image. The combination of bodies and images and stories gives insight into the individual personalities and experiences. The layout of the banners echoes the former Twin Towers – two emblematic buildings that gave rise to a generation of warriors. The destruction of The Towers gave people something symbolic to fight for – that symbolism is seen here. The positioning of the banners also invites a certain curiosity within the building – they occupy a space that draws people into the building, which is where they will come across the galleries that comprise CEPA’s galleries.”
The Odyssey | Warriors Come Home exhibit is on display at CEPA at the Market Arcade until Saturday, December 28. From there, the works will travel to Syracuse University for another showing.