An Art Show, by Veterans Armed With Cameras
In a 19th-century shopping arcade in downtown Buffalo, spread out between a barber shop and a pet store, a stationery store and an art gallery, the ghosts of American wars cling to the walls.
A photography show called “Odyssey: Warriors Come Home” has taken over the halls at the Market Arcade, featuring work by 36 veterans, most of whom have served since Sept. 11, 2001. The veterans each participated in a three-month photography workshop, a partnership between the CEPA Gallery and the Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York, designed to give them an outlet and to help them cope with the challenges of being back in civilian life.
Some of the participants had a longstanding interest in art, and some had never taken a picture that wasn’t on a cellphone or a disposable camera. But many of these men and women said photography has given them a way to process their past and reconnect with emotions long since shut away.
The workshops were taught by Brendan Bannon, a photographer and the founder of the project, and Julian Chinana, a former scout sniper with the Marines. Chinana, who received a purple heart for his service in Afghanistan, has studied photography and is now a police detective. He said that the point of the workshop, as he saw it, was to give veterans a way to communicate without having to have a conversation.
“That’s one thing you always hear from all the wars of the past: People always say, ‘Grandpa was in World War II, but he never talked about it,’” Chinana said. “But just getting it out of your head and out of your body really starts that whole communication. It allows you to start to let go of some of it.”
The exhibit, which opened in September, will be up through the end of December. Here are some of the photographic works and the veterans who took them:
Sam Sacco, 34
Deployed to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008 with the Army National Guard.
This photograph, taken on his living room floor, is a recreation of a painting Sacco made in 2011, when the stress of a divorce and other family issues compounded his struggle returning home from war.
“I had this battle going on in my head and it was hard to express, so I found myself laying around all the time, just separating myself from friends,” he said. “That’s where the painting came from. I stuffed all that away, and doing the photography brought it back out. It was very, I guess, healing to finish processing that part of my life.”
But the picture, he said, is still hard for him to look at.
Erica Duncan, 34
Deployed to the Caribbean in 2007 with the Navy.
Duncan posed herself in her bathtub, laying in a soup of milk and lilac paint, to show the daily struggle of living with post-traumatic stress disorder. She was brutally sexually assaulted while in the military, she said.
“I wanted to make a picture that shows how I’m drowning,” she said, “in everyday life.”
Alyssa Vasquez, 36
Deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2006 and to Afghanistan in 2012 with the Army.
Early one morning, before the sun had brightened the Iraqi sky, a trailer was hit by a rocket. Vasquez said the soldier inside was burned alive.
She helped break the window of a nearby trailer, its frame bent by the explosion, so a trapped soldier could escape. Then she jumped over a concrete barrier, where she saw a group of soldiers and contractors who were watching the flames — filming it.
“I kind of broke from humanity at that time,” she said. “That kind of changed me.”
In the photograph, she is handcuffed because she felt helpless to save the soldier and had to bottle up her aggression toward the people who enraged her. It’s hard to see, she said, but she is screaming at the flash of a camera, as well as the flames.
Jacob Welsted, 35
Deployed to Iraq from 2006 to 2007 with the Army, and to Afghanistan in 2012 with the Army National Guard.
During the Odyssey workshop, Welsted was navigating difficulties in his personal life, and he said the weekly classes became a respite for him, a place of calm. Assigned to take a self portrait, Welsted went to his backyard pool and let himself sink to the bottom of the deep end. He set the camera on a tripod, and his father pushed the button.
“I was trying to emulate the hopelessness of a situation,” Welsted said. “I was trying to act calm, just sitting under water. An acceptance.”
Mike Shanley, 39
Deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004 with the Army.
This pillar of rose granite is part of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran’s War Memorial in downtown Buffalo, at the edge of Lake Erie. It honors service members from Western New York.
“Even though my buddies aren’t there — their names are on different memorials — it’s still a really special place to me.” Shanley said. “I go there at night, when it’s quiet.”
Christopher Veltri, 32
Deployed to Iraq with the Marines from 2007 to 2008 and in 2009.
When Veltri got out the Marines, there were nightmares. They knocked him awake, sweating and shaking, every night around 1 a.m. He would try to stay up for the rest of the night to avoid them, part of a pattern that lasted for years.
“This image represents a point in my life when I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “This is who I was at 1 a.m. during the worst part of my PTSD.”
Maja Kraft, 39
Deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the Army Reserve.
“That’s my face,” Kraft said.
This picture pulls together several recurring dreams involving plane crashes, Kraft said, one in which she’s on the plane and two in which she watches it go down. “I was a medic in the military, on a unit that took care of a lot of patients who bypassed the so-called ER and went straight to the operating room — they were very, very injured,” she said.
“I don’t know if part of that is manifesting,” she said. “A lot of the emotions and memories had been suppressed, and now that I’m letting it out, it’s coming out in sometimes bizarre and unexpected ways.”
Stephen Siulc, 37
Deployed to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004 and to Iraq from 2005 to 2006 with the Army.
Siulc, who said he had always been interested in the arts, made this photograph by layering a picture of the embers in his backyard firepit over a shot he took while his wife was driving them down a road in Hamburg, N.Y. He said he wasn’t trying to convey something specific with this photograph, but was experimenting with the skills he was taught in the class.
“You never unsee what you’ve seen in war,” he said. “You either learn to accept it, or you escape through drugs and alcohol, or you escape this world altogether. But the camera, for me, has been a great escape.”
From the moment he learned about the class, he said, “I loved the idea of putting cameras in veterans hands and saying, ‘Show me your world after.”
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