by Joe Pagetta
Nashvillian Duran Bunch left a privileged life as a top runway model to join our forces in Afghanistan. He took his gun and his camera with him. This is his story.
It is a war photographer’s job to stay calm under pressure. To be hyper aware and ready in an instant to capture the moments that tell the story of war and document it for history’s sake. Essentially, it is the war photographer’s job to tell the truth. The fashion photographer must stay calm as well but has plenty of time and materials to tell his or her story. The moment sought after isn’t so much captured as crafted. The truth is anathema and fantasy paramount.
Duran Bunch gets this. The Nashville native was an international model, shooting with Steven Meisel and Steven Klein and strutting in Europe for Galliano, Valentino, Dolce & Gabanna, Vivienne Westwood and more, when he traded in parties at the Palace de Versailles for basic training at the U.S. Army Reserve Center off White Bridge Road in West Nashville. Pretty soon, the young, lithe, and handsome Bunch, used to walking runways in Paris and Milan, was walking the dusty roads of Kandahar, Afghanistan, as a Specialist in the 325th Psychological Operations Company.
“A lot of photos you see, especially in fashion, people praise them, but everything is set up,” says Bunch. “The model is manufactured. The set is manufactured. All the makeup artists and hair stylists—everything is paid for. These photos, what you see is what you get. That’s real life.”
The real-life photos Bunch is referring to are the dozens that he took with a Pentax ZX-M 35mm camera and rolls of Kodak Tri-X 400 black-and-white film while deployed in Afghanistan in late 2011 and ’12, a selection of which is on display now through May 5 at the Bryant Gallery in East Nashville. The exhibit, Afghanistan Through the Eyes of the Soldier, includes not only 16×24 and 11×16 mounted prints, but hours of looped footage from Bunch’s “helmet cam.” All proceeds support the Wounded Warrior Project.
“As far as I know, it’s the first time a soldier has documented with film in Afghanistan,” says Bunch. “I think I’m the first person to do it.”
A centerpiece of the show is a profile photograph of Bunch’s team leader, sitting back in a field surrounded by wheat. Its composure belies its circumstance. “We were on a mission and took fire from an enemy sniper,” relays Bunch. “The guy three people behind me in formation got hit in the back, but a piece of equipment saved him. As soon as we heard the shot, we got down in the wheat for concealment, so the sniper couldn’t exactly see where we were. We were waiting to get a direction on where the shot came from, so we could return fire or keep on moving. I had it (my camera) in my pouch in my side. It reminded me of a picture of Vietnam, of soldiers in the brush.”
When Bunch and his company started moving, the snipers opened up with fire and RPGs, and the soldiers returned fire. The incident lasted about ten minutes before the snipers ran off.
Bunch’s team leader has told him that “when people see these photos they are not going to realize we had just gotten shot at by enemy fire.”
As Bunch sees it, “That’s real life.”
See Duran Bunch’s photography in Afghanistan Through the Eyes of a Soldier through May 5 at Bryant Gallery.