Brendan Bannon has built a career on curiosity.
The Buffalo-based photojournalist, who just returned from an 18-month stint in Lebanon and Jordan teaching young Syrian refugees to make meaningful photographs, has followed that curiosity around the world.
He’s followed it into the deserts and cities of Kenya, where he documented the struggles of Somalian refugees and the complex lives of Nairobians and in so doing expanded the west’s limited understanding of African geography and culture. He’s followed it into the fields of Rwanda, where that country’s 1994 genocide took place. He’s even followed it into this newspaper’s building on Scott and Washington streets, on assignment for the New York Times.
Now, Bannon is getting back to his roots in his hometown. He’s camped out here for a few months, working as an artist in residence at Hilbert College, where he’s been teaching students in all disciplines about the power of photography as a tool to learn more about the world and a key to locked doors.
As part of his Hilbert residency and his meetings with students, staff and faculty, Bannon is developing daily assignments that explore hidden, overlooked or otherwise underexposed aspects of life in Buffalo – much the same way he did for his Daily Dispatches project in Kenya.
He’ll talk about the project, which wraps up at 7 p.m. April 21 in Hilbert’s Swan Auditorium. And the results of Bannon’s project with Syrian refugees, already displayed in several galleries and museums, will be part of an exhibit planned for the end of May in City Honors School.
So far, Bannon’s project has taken him into the Colonel Ward Pumping Station along the Buffalo River and into Autism Services’ art studios, where clients express themselves by painting on glass and canvas. It’s taken him into political rallies for Donald Trump in Rochester and Bernie Sanders in Buffalo, where the idealism of youth and the anger of disenfranchisement swirl in the air. It also has taken him into plenty of offbeat and unexpected places, including the examination room at the Buffalo Zoo, where he photographed an anteater getting its annual physical and a Chinese box turtle getting an X-ray.
On Saturday night, Bannon was slated to photograph a meat raffle in Lancaster as part of a suggestion by one of the staffers in Hilbert’s service learning program.
“They’re going to have frozen turkey bowling. Apparently if you get a strike you get to walk home with a frozen turkey that you’ve used to knock down 10 pins,” he said. “How do I photograph turkey bowling? Do I need a hard hat? Do I need a helmet? Do I stand behind the pins, in front of them?
That’s just one of the many wonderful, unexpected questions Bannon has to ask himself every day, simply because he made a decision long ago to turn his curiosity into a career.
Out of all the lessons that have emerged from Bannon’s Hilbert residency so far, the deceptively simple notion that a student’s mere curiosity can create mammoth opportunities has perhaps resonated most.
“As a photographer or a journalist, you have a clear understanding that you can knock on all sorts of doors and a good number of them will swing open simply because you’re curious, and that attention and curiosity are often reward enough for people to share their own stories with you,” Bannon said. “When you see something firsthand and up close, it has a really profound impact on you that I think is different from what’s in a textbook. I haven’t been able to bring students on my assignments, but I wanted them to understand that their curiosities materialize in the real world and that by asking to see something, quite often you can see it.”
Sounds easy enough. But for teenagers who have yet to grasp the complexities of their own surroundings, it’s not so obvious.
“There was a world that I wanted to reach for but I had no idea how to reach for it,” he said. “I could reach for a library book about something, and I did a whole bunch of that. I could talk to a professor about something when I was in college, and I did a lot of that as well. But actually going and knocking on doors and seeing firsthand people who make the world work in little ways, day in and day out, was a bit of a foreign concept for me.”
It’s a notion embraced by some of the more active and creative minds in Buffalo’s arts community, including Theatre of Youth director Meg Quinn, who asks the same question to her young audience members after every performance: “What are you curious about?”
It’s a fundamental question. So fundamental, in fact, that the power of curiosity as a tool to reshape the world can often be overlooked or overshadowed by more complex concerns. But, as Bannon has shown in project after project and photograph after photograph, the simplest solution is sometimes the best.
“It takes courage to knock on a door or to pick up the phone and make a call and begin those conversations,” Bannon said, “but I thought it was important to be able to involve the students and have them see that they could have a hand in making journalism, in making photographs and discovering local stories.”