Bannon speaks, and teaches, “Language of Photography”

by Libby Marinaccio

BUFFALO – It’s not every day that a well-respected and established photographer walks into a Hilbert classroom to talk about his journey and passion for photos. It’s even more exciting when that happens for not just one class or one day, but for an entire two weeks. That talented photographer, Brendan Bannon, found himself in Buffalo for a residency stay at Hilbert College during the month of April.
Brendan Bannon has an impressive portfolio to the eyes and ears. Bannon has traveled around the world to places like Syria and Africa, has had photos published by The New York Times, and immersed himself in the everyday experiences of others. But above all the anticipated prestige, it’s clear within seconds that Bannon is driven by curiosity and a love for photography.
Every picture he takes has a story, and he is quick to point out that it is never just one tale. There is the real story, the events that surrounded the moment being captured, and then there are the perceived stories. They are the narratives we conjure up in our minds around images without knowing anything beyond what our eyes can see. When anyone has the opportunity to see Bannon’s work, they are witnessing his remarkable ability to find beauty in the ugliness of life. Once a viewer looks past the light, contrast, form, and color, they are forced to absorb the realities of the millions of other people in the world without the comforts of America. Bannon explained that he was motivated to travel to third-world countries after 9/11 when President Bush encouraged Americans that the best thing they could do for their country was to “go shopping.”
However, Bannon was not trying to make us uncomfortable about the underappreciated fortunes of living in America. Instead he spoke of the limitations of photography. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but everyone interprets images into different words, sentences, and stories. Bannon explained that his work only captures a split second of life; a photograph is unable to encapsulate the dual realities of his subjects. He digressed into a quick anecdote about a group of refugee women that roared with laughter at his expense for being unmarried and without children at over 40 years old.
Perspective is what Bannon’s work graces to others. There are multiple perspectives to be captured, and it is up to a photographer to not only seek the best vantage point to secure a beautifully composed visual, but to also think about what that image will relate to others.
His advice to starters was wise in its simplicity: Bannon stressed the importance of positioning and persistence. Photographers must first put themselves in a spot that maximizes the opportunities for action. He demonstrated the importance of this by scanning the DMAC lab and pragmatically stating that “Inside the circle is where I want to be.” Standing inside the circular hub of computers places him at the epicenter of actions, where watching three students means three times the opportunity of a great photo than hovering over a single student or subject.
Secondly, photographers must have endurance. They always need to be ready for shots because putting down the camera for even the slightest moment is giving up. He believes that your first priority is to find the light, but make sure that you’re positioning yourself in a place to catch a subject’s movement at any moment.
Lastly, he gave a few technical pointers. He would rather operate with a higher ISO than use a flash, even if that means dealing with more grain. Flash is tricky to master, and the times he has tried have usually been under pressure or rushed, resulting in poor photos. When asked by Daniel Higgins, the Journalism professor at Hilbert, about where he stands on the classic Cannon versus Nikon debate, Bannon simply replied, “I use a Cannon.” He believes they are easier to learn and use, but had nothing negative to say about Nikon.
As the stories winded down, Bannon encouraged a literal round of questions by the students gathered at the DMAC table. He was asked about his experiences with Syrian refugees and if ever in his quest to document their stories through photos, his subjects ever wondered about his own tale? “Of course,” he responded. They are usually quick to question his sanity for leaving America, a place they all yearn to live, to be in lesser-prosperous nations and countries with only the comfort of his camera. He was also asked what is was like to be around Kenyan athletes, to which he remarked “It was amazing to wake up to the sound of all those feet moving.”

Bannon answering questions from students about his time in Syria and Kenya.
Photo by Libby Marinaccio

Bannon spoke about his first job for the New York Times where he was asked to photograph the very first baby boomer. When he came back with a series of photos ranging from the man’s infancy, childhood, workplace and home, it was clear that photography was more to Bannon than an assignment. It was his dedication to the story and willingness to go farther than other freelance photographers that ultimately lead to a series of jobs from The New York Times, including the hunt for escaped convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat in June of last year. He garnered a small rumble of nervous laughter while reflecting on a sobering observation, “I looked around and realized that I was the only one without a bulletproof vest on.”
Bannon was passionate while explaining the role he plays in educating students about the importance of photography, “To say photographers show up and don’t have an impact is ridiculous.” He was emphatic about preserving the organic nature of newsworthy events. Photojournalists must capture images of reality, what is actually happening, while doing their best to not influence those events with the clicking of their cameras. Bannon said it is acceptable to anticipate gestures, movement, and potential shots, but never manipulate such elements, “I’m not directing photographs.”
Students of all backgrounds, interests, and majors have something take away from being in Brendan Bannon’s presence. His stories highlight an important truth about life: Anyone that is passionate about something needs to embrace all aspects of it in order to succeed. Photography, and photojournalism especially, are more than just a forms of art; picking up a camera means taking the responsibility of it’s power and influence.
Brendan Bannon’s portfolio is undoubtedly stunning. The hundreds of images that he’s taken over the years are souvenirs of his work, travel, and life that irrefutably prove photography is a language of it’s own.

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