A Conversation with Photographer and The Odyssey Project Founder Brendan Bannon

By Santina Protopapa
the sun sets with a view of the statue of liberty in the background

Oil Fires and Tracers by Richard Cartagena

Brendan Bannon's passion for sharing stories through photography was ingrained in him from a young age, influenced by his amateur photographer mother, who had a dark room in their home, and his father's work on a project on the history of photography in Buffalo, New York, Bannon’s hometown. “I feel like it [photography] is braided into my DNA. My mom made these wonderful, lyrical, just sweetly composed pictures, and I was captivated by the dark room at the age of four or five,” he explained during our interview.

As a youth, Bannon felt like there was a wall around photography—that the craft was something he needed to be invited into. But that perspective eventually changed. “I realized that the wall I'd imagined wasn’t to keep me out; it was there to be climbed. Once I started climbing over that wall, photography welcomed me and became part of my life,” he said. 

Bannon thinks about photography as a vehicle of engagement with the world. That view has defined his work as a caregiver, storyteller, photographer, and teaching artist. Photography is his tool to notice, celebrate, and connect with others as a means of restoration and empowerment for those enduring challenging times. He currently works as the founder and director of the Odyssey Project, which helps returning combat veterans reintegrate into civilian life through photography, peer support, and mentoring.

NEA: What inspired you to become a professional photographer?

 BRENDAN BANNON: I had some close friends in college who died in car accidents. Two really close friends within six months of each other. After John Anderson died, I was just shaken and needed to figure out what to do to move forward. I desperately wanted to stop time and rewind. I remember saying to myself, “If I ‘d allowed myself to take photos, I would have all these pictures that would keep John with us.” I decided at that point that I was going to start photographing. I took a year off from school and apprenticed with Rob McElroy, a photographer in Buffalo.

Soon after, I put my cameras down to take care of my mom, who had multiple sclerosis. I was her full-time caregiver and ran a house painting business until I was near exhaustion. The caregiving had definitely taken its toll on me. I was clinically depressed. I was paralyzed but needed to move forward. I was 27 and remembered, “Hey, you used to want to be a photographer.” So I pulled the cameras out of my closet, started photographing, and gave myself a year or two to play. I photographed my daily life and then got hungry to look around and travel a little bit. I started building a body of work by learning how to print my pictures at Campos, a rental lab in Buffalo.

NEA: Tell me about your first exhibition.

 BANNON: In the rental labs I was working in, you'd put your print up in a public area underneath daylight-adjusted lights to figure out what adjustments to make. It was a very public way of working. Amy Caterina, who worked at the counter, also curated a gallery in that space. She liked what I was doing and was super complimentary. One day I came in, and she said, “You're going to have an exhibit at the beginning of next month.” And I was like, “No, Amy. I’m a house painter, not a photographer.”

I ended up having the exhibit. There were people from all different parts of my life there. There were painters, plumbers, carpenters, and neighbors that I grew up with. It was an amazing night. I ended up selling 50-something pictures out of that show and being asked by CEPA Gallery in Buffalo to teach in public schools.

Later, my mom moved into a nursing home. She asked me to hang pictures I made in her room. My mom used the pictures to connect with her nurses and doctors. Whenever someone came into her room, she’d ask, “What do you see in that picture?”

The pictures were a way for my mom to engage with the people who were caring for her, to talk about her family, her kids, and her work, and be more than just a body that needed to be moved and shifted. My photos helped humanize my mom’s experience. She gave me permission to go out in the world and bring it back with pictures. It was amazing. You can see where the seeds for what I'm doing now, in terms of community-based collaborative projects, were formed from that experience.

NEA: Tell me about how your work developed overseas.

BANNON: There was no grand plan for developing my photography career. I just kind of threw myself into the world with hungry eyes. My professional work in photography really took off in Kenya. But that came about randomly.

I first went to Romania, where I documented the closing of orphanages and the development of a new childcare system. Later, I taught photography and writing to HIV-positive kids in Romania. They made beautiful photographs that told their story. Two years later, on World AIDS Day, they showed their work and marched in the streets of their hometown. Their lives were no longer a secret. One girl ended up challenging some of the laws in Romania that were discriminatory. She ended up winning. The experience inspired me to keep working with kids affected by HIV.

I secured a small grant and traveled to Kenya to teach a photography workshop for a community of HIV-affected kids. I eventually went to Uganda, where I collaborated with a partner but also faced pushback from local officials. Through various projects, including working with Doctors Without Borders, my work gained recognition, leading to an invitation to exhibit my photographs at the UN headquarters in Nairobi and teaching international workshops to HIV orphan kids.

I ended up shooting for many different humanitarian organizations and press and teaching workshops in the slums in Nairobi to people interested in photography. From there, I started teaching in refugee camps for the UN High Commission for Refugees and other international NGOs. Each of these experiences seemed to create another opportunity that was completely unanticipated and kind of thrilling because I could do work that felt meaningful to me. The work drew upon a blend of skills and talents that I had developed as a caregiver, photographer, and human being.

 NEA: Your Odyssey Project collaborates with the Josephine Herrick Project in New York City to engage veterans in photography workshops. Can you talk about that work?

BANNON: The Odyssey Project is a series of intensive photo workshops designed for combat veterans to have an opportunity to show and share their experiences first in a small group of peers, and then through these built-in concentric circles it has an impact on, family and community. I design a series of assignments that allow [the participants] to gradually and open-endedly encounter and engage each other and then move on from there. The activities ask: How do you engage with another veteran? How do you look at the landscape? How do you create double exposures that can tell the story about what happened then and what's happening now?

Each workshop cohort is a new opportunity to listen to the stories veterans want to share. We try to incorporate the things they lead us to discover into the program. I think making a double exposure is one of the most rewarding assignments. Creating a double exposure started with USMC veteran Nate Maybee, who served in Iraq. He came to class with a self-portrait, a silhouette of his head with an IED detonating inside the silhouette. He showed that to the group, and everybody was blown away. And there was this chorus like, “Yeah.” His work was recognized and celebrated immediately. It was extraordinary to see that kind of clarity of expression for something that is so murky—a TBI (traumatic brain injury). Everybody in the room felt like their experience was expressed in Nate's image.

I've worked with a lot of different communities, and I have to say that veterans are amazing to work with because they know how to form a group. They accommodate each other's rough edges and come together to do something mission-driven. Veterans are discovering that making art can be mission-driven. They are using photography to create and grow communities through this program.

NEA: I was inspired by the photos veteran Richard Cartagena created during The Odyssey Project at Josephine Herrick.  Can you share some insights into Richard’s artistic process and how you helped facilitate his journey as a photographer?

BANNON: Richard Cartagena is a Marine Corps veteran from Desert Storm. He'll insist that he is not a photographer, that he is not an artist, and that this creative thing of not having rules to follow is just too much. But then he'll go out and embrace all of the opportunities that photography presents … doing it with no rules. I saw over time that the pictures and stories he shared had a deep double meaning.

He made a picture of the Statue of Liberty with heavy cloud cover during a dramatic sunset. The sky was rich in yellow ochre color. It was a wonderful, profound, dramatic image of the Statue of Liberty. On the surface, it's a well-done picture of an American icon. Then he started talking about it. He started to say, “Well, this picture reminds me of …” He was born and grew up in New York, so I thought there was some New York City story coming. And he said, “It reminds me of Iraq. When we were over there, the oil fields were burning. They'd been set ablaze, and the cloud cover was like this. And you know, it just reminds me of that time, of sitting there watching these oil wells burn and watching the day sky turn to night.” I am haunted by that description. He made other pictures during the course that were similar. He made a profound connection between the pictures he was making in the city he was seeing daily and his experience as a soldier. It illustrates how a combat veteran’s experiences as a soldier changes how they see everything when they come home.

NEA: What have you learned as an artist facilitating photography workshops with veterans?

BANNON: I've learned that veterans carry this weight of experience, this weight of contradiction. They are probably carrying more contradictions than most people experience in a lifetime. I grew up with this pantheon of figures I saw as willing to sacrifice everything for what they believed in. I saw Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi, the Kennedys. There was this litany of historical figures who confronted a reality that they wanted to change and make better. What is interesting for me in this experience of working intimately with combat veterans is to start to see them occupy that same space in my mind. You know, there's a difference between going to war and being a pacifist like Gandhi. There's also a similarity in the sense that both human beings are making decisions informed by love, informed by protectiveness, informed by a sense of belief, informed, maybe by desperation, and maybe by a sense of no other options. And maybe by some combination of all of those things. So, whether you're Gandhi or Steve Siulc, you put your life on the line for a belief rooted in love. That was an amazing realization to come to. It kind of shifted my perspective, making working with this population even more of an honor.

NEA: What should those in the field of community arts engagement know if they are interested in participating in similar work – engaging veterans through the arts?

BANNON: The first thing is to be confident that your work and efforts have the potential to transform lives. This work is not only beneficial to the person you are working directly with. There is a concentric circle of impact. A ripple effect. People are able to say things to each other through art that they could never find the words for. Veterans are having an effect on each other, on their relationships with their families, and are talking to the community at large.

We had this exhibit in Buffalo, and we invited a PTSD art therapy group from the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Batavia, New York, to come and see the work on the walls of the Odyssey Project. A woman in the group cried while looking at an image. I was worried that the artwork was triggering. She took a moment with her art therapist. I asked the art therapist if she was okay. The therapist explained that the photo brought tears to her eyes because she saw something in that picture that showed she wasn't alone with this feeling she’d carried for the last ten years. People are making pictures that allow others to feel understood even in life's loneliest moments. That's an extraordinary gift.

NEA: What’s the value of giving military communities access to the arts?

 BANNON: Sharing access to the arts demonstrates the transformative impact of communication and expression. We have to sustain these opportunities long enough to recognize that we can give those opportunities to the next person on the road.

The arts help communicate the age-old human experiences of war and its impact on the people who fight it. Art-making doesn’t change a warrior into an artist. It opens a pathway where people can move between those two human experiences. That’s the value.

Santina Protopapa is an arts education leader, musician, record collector, storyteller, and media maker who has been a member of the Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network team since 2020.