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Images and thoughts from the eyes and minds of local veterans now on display

Dozens of local veterans have expressed their stories - and the private battles they are still fighting - by creating images and words now available for public viewing in Buffalo's Market Arcade.

Brendan Bannon, a photographer and artist who conceived the idea and last year secured partners to materialize the project, explained that the exhibit has been spread out through all four levels of the Market Arcade. Upon entering the atrium, one may look up and observe a series of blue tapestries, cyanotypes featuring the images left by veterans laying on those tapestries as well as artifacts the participating veterans chose to lay on the same sheet.

On the second floor, just outside the entrance to project partner CEPA Gallery, begins a series of photos that traces a common storyline from enrollment to aftermath.

"It begins with a room that explores beginnings, explores love, the things that people were willing to put their lives on the line for when they signed up to be soldiers," Bannon explained. "Then it quickly moves from that into a series of pictures that explore the combat experience of the veterans."

Last fall, WBFO first met Julien Chinana, an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran who served with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines as an infantry rifleman and later a scout/sniper. He continued his passion for photography while on active duty and produced numerous images of the war experience, some graphic, most of them haunting.

He was among the instructors who recently led dozens of other veterans in a series of classes known as the Odyssey Workshops. Their works are now on display throughout the Market Arcade.

"All of the images that came through, especially when we started really delving into the double-exposure projects, the dream projects, incorporating those times overseas and how they came back with everybody, it was really powerful to see other people were experiencing the same types of things that I was," Chinana said.

The double and sometimes additional multiple exposure photos continue to tell tales of coming home and the struggles they battle internally. These include post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues related to it, the guilt of losing comrades in the field and even the dark temptations to end their own lives.

One especially chilling double-exposure photo is of a veteran holding a gun to his head, while a child stands behind him watching. That was created by one of the veteran students, Stephen Siulc, who is also the Erie County Council VFW Commander.

"This is a real thing. We have to look at it and acknowledge it and accept it," he said. "But we also have to deal with it and figure out how to handle it and make it go away. How do we help the veterans going forward? How do we help them overcome the stress that they have of the war?"

Siulc's numerous contributions to the exhibit also include a combination of images and written accounts featuring a detached and dirty doll head which was adopted as a talisman for his unit's vehicle.

The Odyssey Workshop got underway late last fall, after Bannon found partners in CEPA Gallery and the Veterans One-Stop of Western New York to bring the project to life. There were three 12-week classes and a family caregivers' class scheduled but with the help of the One-Stop, which took on the caregivers' session, a fourth class was opened.

The challenge now is keeping the Odyssey Workshops going for more veterans. There is also a plan to produce a printed volume featuring many of these works.

"Right now, we're trying to finish up our fundraising for the catalog," said Lawrence Brose, executive director of CEPA Gallery "There's going to be a whole catalog that will document all of this. It's going to be very powerful for the veterans to have, as well as the public to see, once this exhibition closes."

The exhibit is scheduled to run through October 19 but Bannon says people attending should not see that as an "end" to the Odyssey.

"What I see is a group of warriors who have come together and found purpose in photography, found purpose in newly forged friendships and have created opportunities to transform their lives and the lives around them through the tools of photography, the concepts that were shared in the workshop," he said. "There are people that are starting businesses and running them now, because of this workshop. There are people from all four groups, which met separately, who are now coming together as a community."

The exhibit is free to the public and, due to its popularity, has been extended through December 28.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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