When Benjamin Busch's reserve unit was called up to take part in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in April 2003, the Marine major made sure to pack, along with his pistol, his camera.
Busch's combat tour in Iraq spanned the initial invasion and occupation and lasted until October of that year. During that time, the 36-year-old College Park resident, who in civilian life makes his living as a television actor and director (he's appeared on episodes of Homicide and The Wire), took hundreds of pictures focusing on the lives of ordinary Iraqis.
"The photographs represent a particular moment in time that's now gone," says Busch, a lean man with intense brown eyes and a Marine's buzz-cut hairstyle. "I wanted to convey a sense of the things that are unique about Iraq that usually go unnoticed. But the pictures are also neutral, I hope. They don't editorialize one way or another, neither pro-war nor anti-war; it's Iraq as I found it."
Now, days before Busch returns to Iraq for a second tour of duty, his photographs are the subject of an extraordinary exhibition that opens today at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi. On Sunday, his unit, the 5th Civil Affairs Group leaves for Camp Lejeune in North Carolina en route to Iraq, where its members will help repair the infrastructure and develop local government.
Called The Art in War, the show of 40 color photographs reveals not only the chaos and upheaval of a country at war but also the intensely personal responses of a Marine who observes the grim profession of war with the eye of an artist.
"His pictures are so much more than simply war photographs," says Marilyn Maupin Hart, who as director of the university's arts program helped bring the exhibition to UMUC. "Because they are about the people caught up in the war and how they are living, they are also art."
Art and journalism
For example, a photograph called "Not Waving but Drowning" shows a strangely disjointed figure painted on the side of a sports stadium. The image is really two pictures, one on top of the other, created when Saddam Hussein attempted to modernize Iraq's image. But over the years the spring rains washed away the paint covering the older image, which now coexists uneasily with the new one.
"The picture is about what lies below the surface, so it's really about art as much as it's about journalism," Busch says.
Like his photos, Busch possesses subtle complexities. Raised in the small town of Sherburne, N.Y., he's the son of an English professor father and a librarian mother who, he says, initially were "horrified" by his decision to join the military (though they are now strongly supportive of his choice to become a Marine).
"He's such an extraordinarily complicated person and his interests are so varied," said Harry Roseman, a professor of sculpture and drawing at Vassar College in upstate New York, where Busch majored in studio art. He also attended the Marines' rigorous Officers Candidate School during the summer between his junior and senior years.
After college, Busch served four years in the active military, rising from the rank of second lieutenant to major along the way. And he married his college sweetheart, Tracy, who recently earned her Ph.D. in Russian history from Georgetown University. The couple has a daughter, Alexandra, who is just 14 weeks old.
"I know I'll miss my daughter's first words, her first steps, all the things you wish for as a parent," Busch says of his imminent departure for Iraq. "But I also realize there are thousands of fathers over there missing their children, and if I can aid the effort to bring some of them back, I have a duty to do that."
After his active military service, Busch joined the Marine Reserves and decided that in his civilian life he wanted to act and make films. His roles have included that of Anthony Colicchio, a hard-boiled Baltimore narcotics cop on HBO's The Wire, and on Homicide he appeared as Luke Ryland, "the Internet serial killer."
"Since I stayed in the reserves I had to keep my hair cut short, so practically the only roles I could audition for were cops and killers," Busch says somewhat ruefully.
He's also directed an independent feature film, The Distance, which he describes as "a dark domestic drama about a young man's coming-of-age in an emotionally repressed family."
Given his resume, it's no surprise that UMUC's Hart calls Busch a Renaissance man. (During his last stint in Iraq, for example, the aspiring actor commanded 150 men of a light armored reconnaissance unit; this time he'll help lead a hand-picked civil affairs group assigned to rebuild infrastructure in Iraq's Al Anbar province, a hotbed of Sunni Muslim resistance that includes the city of Fallujah.)
His photos are "infused with a combination of clear observation and humanism" says Roseman, who has stayed in touch with his former pupil (Busch's photographs were shown last year at his alma mater). "They're not sensational, exploitative or sentimental in any way, and they tell you not only about the place but also about Ben and the art of photography."
That art is immediately visible in pictures like The Disappeared, a haunting image of Iraqi civilians searching a mass grave for the bodies of relatives slain under Hussein near the town of Badrah, which Busch shot in May of 2003, soon after arriving in Iraq.
The photograph shows a group of men holding up photos of their missing relatives. They aren't merely recalling their "disappeared" family members, however, but are matching the clothes in the pictures against those found on the bodies they have exhumed - in hopes of identifying the remains.
"We stood nearby as Iraqi men dug into the yellow-white lime powder in search of their relatives," Busch noted in his war diary. "They gathered the bone in the clothes of the dead and lay them in rows for families to examine. There were no forensic teams or police, just men with shovels and us."
Another photograph, taken at the same time, shows the bones of one of the victims wrapped in white cloth for proper reburial. "The families hurried these bodies to Najaf to be interred in the ancient cemeteries that have become part of the battlefield," Busch wrote. "The story of these dead becomes more tragic once you imagine conflict following them into their final resting place."
In a third poignant image, the manager of a small ice factory near the Iranian border has moved his cot into the building to guard against looters during the night.
"We later heard that this man had been killed in a local dispute over the price of ice soon after our departure," Busch wrote. "I feel a particular sadness about this photograph because it captures this man's life in the place where he died and it may be the only lasting image of him at all."
Busch's fellow Marines see his photographs as evidence of the dire straits in which they found Iraq's civilian population after the initial invasion, and most of them believe the pictures portray the American presence there in an objective way.
"Let me tell you how we feel," said Col. Steve McKinley, commanding officer of the 5th Civil Affairs Group, the unit with which Busch will return to Iraq. "We're pleased to know our presence in Iraq on the first go around was documented by Major Busch, and I'm certainly pleased that he's volunteered to return with us as part of the 5th CAG. I'm sure he'll get the opportunity to take more photographs while he's there."
What: Art in War
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; through April 10
Where: UMUC in the Arts Program Gallery, Inn and Conference Center, College Park