A Buffalo-based contemporary visual arts center will begin hosting a program in January that connects combat veterans to cameras, in an effort to help them express experiences and feelings they may be struggling to put into words as they transition from military life to the civilian world. Helping CEPA Gallery with the Odyssey Workshops will be a combat veteran whose own experiences are already documented in graphic detail.
"These are in-depth workshops, 12 week-long workshops starting with a two-day retreat to help with the bonding and doing a deeper dive into what photography can be," explained Lawrence Brose, executive director of CEPA Gallery. "Everyone who has an iPhone thinks they're a photographer but we're going to give them real cameras and the real experience."
The Odyssey Workshop project was conceived by Brendan Bannon, a photojournalist and photgraphy educator who has worked in some of the world's war-torn and devastated regions and whose students have included refugee children and children whose lives have been directly impacted by HIV.
"When I came back from living in Kenya for five years, I was looking for a project that would have an impact in the community here and proposed the idea to teach photography to returning combat veterans," said Bannon.
Brose had an ideal candidate to join and assist Bannon with the project. Julian Chinana is an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran who served with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines as an infantry rifleman and later a scout/sniper. He was wounded in action and, thus, was presented with the Purple Heart. Upon returning home from combat duty, Chinana decided to study photography and became one of Brose's students at the University at Buffalo.
Photography had always been a passion for Chinana and he continued pursuing it while on active duty. He took pictures while on active duty and, upon returning home, revisited some of those images to create series of works. One of them, which he calls "Resisting Emotion," captures fellow combatants in the field.
"When I went back and looked at these photos, I was looking at the faces of the people I knew," he said. "At the time, when I was in Afghanistan and I was in Iraq, it didn't really click to me what was going on. But in my reflection, looking back at all these photos, I noticed little details in all these people's faces, in their eyes and in their postures. It really spoke to me about what I was feeling and how I connected to them. I didn't even realize they were going through the same thing that i was at the time."
Another one of Chinana's series features a half dozen copies of his own certificates, including his Honorable Discharge and his Purple Heart recognitions, made into negative transparencies. Behind those transparencies are images that, upon a closer inspection, reveal graphic images of war zones. The images can be disturbing, including one of a severed head of a soldier killed by a roadside bomb and others showing severe injuries including lost limbs.
"These are all very traumatic experiences and very graphic experiences which, I think, a lot of people back home don't understand happens," Chinana said. "You get the idea that these are the kind of things that happen in war, but you don't really see it. It's something that, with those shiny medals on your chest, it's what you don't realize."
Once Brose introduced Chinana to Bannon, there was an immediate chemistry and from there, Chinana helped Brose identify a partner that would help CEPA Gallery secure a National Endowment for the Arts Creativity Connects grant. A non-arts organization's participation is required for that grant and the Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York was identified as the right organization to recruit.
The One-Stop Center has what is known as the Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program, which encourages returning veterans and their families to discover and embrace a passion that helps with the transition from military life to the civilian world.
"Working with veterans just seems like a perfect fit and the Dwyer Program through the Veterans One-Stop Center said the one thing they're really missing in their various programs is the arts," said Brose. "They do some artwork, they take veterans to the Albright Knox, but nothing deep like this."
The first of four planned 12-week workshops is scheduled to begin in January. That workshop, and a second 12-week series, will work with post-9/11 veterans. A third and fourth workshop series, scheduled to begin in early spring, will work with veterans and family caregivers.
"Talking to veterans that I knew, they all thought it was going to be a positive project and something that would contribute to people's overcoming the challenges they face when they come home from combat," Bannon said.
Chinana, when asked about the catharsis his photogrpahy provides, stated that it changed his development upon coming back, having seen other veterans who are struggling to fit in. Others like him.
"It's tough but this process really opened my eyes and really opened my ability to talk about it," he said.