For veterans across the country, the challenges of their time in combat zones often linger long after they return home.
Though the plight of many veterans to re-enter society has been well-documented in the media, it's rare to hear directly from former soldiers about the struggles they face on the home front.
That will change for Western New Yorkers this fall, when about 40 Western New York veterans and their caregivers participate in the first of a series of photography workshops co-sponsored by CEPA Gallery and the Veterans One-stop Center of Western New York.
The Odyssey Workshops, as the program been dubbed, will be led by Buffalo-based photographer Brendan Bannon and local veteran and photographer Julian Chinana. Veterans will learn the basics of photography and create a traveling exhibition featuring their work.
The concept, CEPA Gallery Director Lawrence Brose said, was an easy sell both to the Veterans One-stop Center and to the National Endowment for the Arts, which provided a $59,000 matching grant to support the project.
"As soon as Brendan started talking, they just leapt all over it," Brose said of his first meeting with the Veterans One-stop Center. "This is about veterans taking control of their own narrative. There's lots of reporting out there, but what about their own voices being heard?"
Chuck Marra, president and CEO of the Veterans One-stop Center, said the program fits directly into the center's mission.
"It allows them to connect with other veterans as part of the program," he said. "It gives them a sense of reconnection and certainly a sense of camaraderie with the other veterans they'd be working with. It's one of those programs that we think has a lot of merit."
The program, slated to launch this fall with a two-day retreat in Angola, will be divided up into four groups of 10 veterans: two groups of veterans of post-9/11 conflicts; one group of Vietnam veterans; and one group of caregivers for local veterans.
“I have learned that art is a very powerful tool of expression and communication,” Chinana said. "I personally have found that with photography, I can find ways not only to express how I’m feeling, but also how I see the world around me.”
Brose and others at CEPA are still working to raise more funding for the project, and are hopeful that outreach efforts to Sony and Canon may enable them to provide high-end cameras to the veterans that they can keep after the program is complete.
"The unique thing about this project is that we're trying to get higher-end cameras for the vets and we want them to keep the cameras, because we don't want to teach them something and then take away the tool."
For Bannon, giving veterans access to cameras and photography skills will open up new ways for them to express themselves and process their experiences.
"Having an opportunity to explore the vocabulary and learn the language of photography will give veterans away to share their experiences on a deeper level," he wrote in an email from Nepal, where he is currently working on a photography project. "My hope is that the results of our work together will be a compelling exhibit that opens doors for individuals to share and be heard and seen."
The resulting exhibition will be on view in CEPA Gallery in May 2019, with hopes to tour it to other galleries and veterans organizations in the region.