The Problem of Fear ~ Chip Duncan

Foreword ~ by Sarah Stefanko ~ One thing all of our themes for the year have in common is that fear works counter to them. Fear comes to us in different ways at different times, and it’s powerful enough to keep us from listening to our lives in the quiet of meditation, from trusting our intuition, from being able to surrender. “The Problem of Fear” is an excellent piece by Chip Duncan. He examines the ways he’s experienced fear in his own life and work in some of the most dangerous, poverty-stricken areas of the world, and tells us what he’s learned from those encounters.

The Problem of Fear ~ No place can better educate a visitor about the diversity of culture and religion in India than the cremation ghats of Varanasi.  The entrance to the ghats is teeming with tourists, beggars, shop owners, and makeshift street merchants hawking everything from steaming bowls of dhal and curried catfish to spicy chai and orange soft drinks.  For an adventure traveler and photographer, the long series of stone steps that lead to the burning funeral pyres along the River Ganges are a paradise.  There are pictures in every direction.  Music blares from old boom boxes, motorcycles hum in the distance, cart wheels squeak and children squeal with laughter.  The walkways smell of tea, spices, urine and cow shit.  A more exotic and chaotic place may not exist on Earth.

But paradise isn’t the way I saw it on my first filmmaking visit in 1987.  It was pre-dawn when I approached the entrance to the historic funeral pyres that line the River Ganges.  My mission was simple.  I was there to photograph the ghats for a travel documentary on India that would be broadcast on the Discovery Channel.  Our team had already photographed the Taj Mahal, the houseboats of Kashmir and the exotic temples at Khajarahjo and I was feeling like a veteran when I approached the entrance to Manikarnika Ghat.   But the beggars stopped me in my tracks.  There they were – a few broken men, legless, with their torsos wrapped in a filthy shalwar kameez or a ragged t-shirt.  Their waists rested on makeshift skateboards as they pushed themselves through crowds of tourists using only the stumps of their wrists to propel them.  Was there anyone who could share a few rupees?, they asked.  Anyone who could help them out with some food or a cup of tea?  They were speaking Hindi but their pleading faces and outstretched stumps said it all.  Most were too physically deformed to raise their heads and look up into our faces.  They spent their time calling out and scurrying side to side across the small walkways to collect two rupee notes (the equivalent, at the time, of an American nickel).

I’d become accustomed to handing a few rupees out the window of our car to beggars approaching at an intersection in Delhi.  It didn’t amount to much money and the street beggars and I had, quite literally, no personal interaction.  It was just a matter-of-fact human interaction that was fundamentally cold and innocuous since begging is, in large parts of India, a kind of profession.  But the ghats of Varanasi were different.  These men were severely handicapped and their deformities were accentuated by years of homelessness, grime, malnutrition and dehumanizing poverty.  Two of the men were, by appearance, blind, their eyes glazed over by milky cataracts.  At least three of the four had no hands, just calloused, bruised or bloody stumps.  I remember cringing at whatever pain must have, by now, become part of their routine.  The guilty white bread Iowan in me wanted to say “I’ll give you whatever I have.”  But that isn’t what happened. My embarrassment of riches was front and center, but what I felt wasn’t embarrassment.  I felt fear.  Did they have leprosy I wondered?  Was there a disease I could catch?  Should I be careful not to touch them?

Yes, every friend who’d ever been to India had put me through the ringer before I’d ventured overseas.  “There’s hepatitis,” they’d say. “There’s malaria and cholera.  You’re very likely to get sick from bad chicken, bad water or a bad egg at breakfast.  And don’t forget Dengue Fever.”  Dangerous seeds of fear had been planted and the beggars of Varanasi reinforced a paranoia I hadn’t imagined I could feel.

From waist height, I dropped a few rupees near one of the beggars.  I can still see the crumpled notes falling, as if in slow motion, landing on the oily cement walkway.  I can still hear the squeaky wheels of the skateboard as one of the men scooted across to pick up the bills.  We never even made eye contact.  I dropped a few more bills and the scene repeated itself.  It wasn’t an act of generosity or compassion.  All I felt was fear.  I was relieved to have work to do as I headed off to photograph the ghats.

Then, as the months passed, I couldn’t shake the shame I felt.  Of what, exactly, had I been so afraid?

Twenty-five years later, with my experience in Varanasi as an inspiration, I make regular visits to some of the world’s most challenging places.  Darfur.  The slums of Lima and Nairobi.  Refugee camps in Pakistan … and rural villages in Afghanistan.  I’ve documented food distribution in Ethiopia, and watched a doctor comfort a dying mother in an understaffed hospital in rural Burma.  I can still hear the gulping sobs of traumatized parents in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince as they handed their paralyzed baby into the arms of a volunteer physician.  Emotion thrives in crisis zones and I’m not immune to experiencing the pain, sorrow, laughter and joy of those I photograph, but the fear that paralyzed me in Varanasi is gone.

Today, one of the most common questions I get during a lecture or screening of a film is “aren’t you afraid?”  When the question comes from the audience, I visualize the Indian beggars and recall my inability, at the time, to make a human connection.  Then I reframe the scene and this time, I kneel down, make eye contact, greet the beggar with a smile, and cup the stump of his hand in my own as I respectfully place the rupee notes in the crook of his crippled thumb.  Instead of being compromised by a fear that dehumanizes a human being in need, I have a profoundly human experience.  Fear is replaced by compassion and nothing, in my experience, better allows me to live in the moment.  In that interaction, we are one.

Fear, some say, can be a good thing.  Of course, there are reasons to be careful and to understand the dangers of a place or situation, and all of us should assess the risk to personal safety before making a venture into a tough environment or confronting an enemy or predator.  Yet in my experience, fear may be the most crippling emotion of all.  Fear occupies space at the center of war, hatred, bigotry and propaganda where it feeds, perpetually, on itself.  When focused inward, fear reinforces insecurity, fosters negativity, enhances uncertainty and destroys confidence and creativity.  Fear closes the mind.

We’ve all watched a dog protect its turf and sympathized with a rabbit being chased by a fox.  Fear is a natural response to jeopardy and all animals, including humans, experience fear as a form of self-protection.  But what makes humans unique is our consciousness.  Humans have the opportunity to question and to process fear, to confront it and, when we know it to be irrational, to deconstruct it, analyze it and release it.  Without ignoring the source of our fears, we can choose to assess risks and make choices around our behavior.  From the time we become conscious and aware of our human condition we know we’re going to die.  It’s a given.  We’re going to suffer.  We’re going to be confronted with choices around who to trust and why.  We’re going to have to decide whom to love, what to believe, and where to put our faith.  Innate to the human experience, that knowledge, and especially the knowledge of our imminent death is, for many, at the source of our fear.  It’s a natural part of what it means to live a human life.  But it’s equally true that part of our personal or spiritual growth depends on recognizing our fears, confronting them and overcoming what we know to be irrational.  At the heart of the personal analysis are our values.  Who do we want to be?  How do we want to be defined?  Do we want to be the person who lets fear become a barrier to human interaction … or the person who seizes the opportunity to share a common bond of humanity?

As our relationships grow and we become more involved in work and family, we’re faced with fear on a regular basis.  What if I fail my physics class?  What if I can’t repay my college loans?  Is my spouse cheating on me?  Will I lose my job?  What will happen to me if the bottom falls out of the stock market?  The range of opportunity to feel fear is vast.   For example, some political parties thrive on fear by telling people they might lose something value or come under personal attack if their candidate fails to win office.  An enemy may invade.  A terrorist may bring down another airplane.  The government may raise taxes or take away a valued service.  Many political advertisers thrive on fear (and in some cases, lies) but so do many mainstream advertisers.  They tell us that a deal is limited, that we must buy now, or that we’ll be out of step with the rest of society if we don’t get the right product at the right time for the right price.  We’re conditioned to be afraid of being left out because we don’t have the right clothes, we’re not drinking the best beer with the coolest people, or we’re not wealthy enough to drive the most impressive car.  Some filmmakers thrive on fear because, frankly, it’s profitable.  Hollywood movies “sell” on the idea that the world is ending.  The sky is falling.  Armageddon is upon us.  The trend in comic book superheroes and disaster films plays perfectly into moviegoer fear.  Millions may die from the disaster or monster or alien, but because the protagonist is there to protect us – and the protagonist always wins – our fears can be assuaged by our sense of relief.  Life will go on.  (It’s also worth questioning why the protagonist in Hollywood films is almost always a white male, but that’s another story.)

So the question becomes, “what do I do about fear?  How do I stop letting fear rule my life, impact my decisions or inspire blinding stereotypes about people who are different from me?”  The questions aren’t simple.  They’re complex and unique to everyone who may pose them.  For me, the process of overcoming fear is just that – it’s a process.  It’s not a switch I can turn on or off.  But the process does include a handful of maxims I’ve come to trust and have, over time, adopted into behavior I no longer need to consider consciously.  They include:

1.  People are more similar than they are different.  As Abraham Lincoln stated beautifully in his 2nd Inaugural Address, we are all praying to the same God.  Lincoln referred to the North and South in America’s bloody Civil War.  But the same could be said of the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, the Luo and Kikuyu in Kenya, the Sunni and Shia in Iraq, or the Taliban and central government in Afghanistan.  On both sides of any conflict, parents love their children and want what’s best for their future.  Both feel love, both prefer kindness to contempt, both want clean water and a decent meal, and they can all laugh at a good joke.

For example, I’ve had many opportunities to photograph funerals, weddings and spiritual celebrations in different parts of the world reflecting different cultural and faith traditions.  The costumes, rituals, prayers, songs and dances often reflect a unique tradition or history that can seem foreign or difficult to comprehend.  But the emotions, the friendships and family bonds are universal.  The stories and myths may be told differently but the human characters, themes and values are almost always the same.  The need for food, water and shelter is as universal as the need for love, friendship and fun.

2.  Say yes.  The first word many children learn is “no.”  It’s easy to say no, and there are times when it’s exactly the right response.  But many of us also say no to the things that scare us even when saying “yes” would create an opportunity.  Saying yes means opening ourselves up to new experiences, new friendships, new thoughts and ideas.  Saying yes means becoming aware of solutions to our own life’s challenges that we may never have known about or considered.  Saying yes opens our minds to experiences that inform our world, inspire action, and enrich our lives and the lives of others.

For example, I had an innate fear of heights that compromised me as a filmmaker and kept me from doing a lot of fun things.  After processing the fear of heights with a shaman in the Peruvian Andes, I decided to confront it head on.   What was I afraid of?  The rational me knew that calamity was more likely to arise from my fear than it would from the lack of fear.  So I went sky diving twice from 14,000 feet and took up rock climbing.  I even learned to enjoy the experience.  While I do still feel the fear of heights on occasion, I confront it and let it move outside of me instead of letting it control me.

3.  Stay informed.  All too often, ignorance, fear and bigotry are closely mingled.  Though people often want to blame the government, media, politicians or religious leaders for perpetuating fear and stereotypes, the world of information is vast and accessible.  Many nations have a free press and even those that don’t usually allow access to the Internet.

For example, prior to my third trip to Afghanistan several people questioned why I’d go back to such a dangerous place.  Yet at the time of my departure, the death rate for American soldiers had dropped significantly.  Terrorist attacks in Kabul had gone from daily to rare occurrences.  A nation that had a 13% literacy rate at the time of my first visit now had more than 80,000 students in colleges, at least 25% of whom were women.  Exports had increased with real markets for carpets, jewelry, agricultural products and natural resources.  Media was flourishing with several private broadcasters and newspapers.  Even tourism was taking hold in both the Wakhan Valley and Bamyan Province.  So was it the same Afghanistan that people feared from a decade earlier?  No, it wasn’t.

4.  Don’t personalize the actions of others.  The key word we often forget when reviewing most terrorist attacks is “innocent.”  To be clear, terrorism only works because terrorists attack innocent, unsuspecting people.  The same can be said of street gangs or gun-toting mentally ill men who shoot school kids, people praying in a temple or watching a movie.  It can be said of drunk drivers who destroy the lives of people they’ve never met.  But in the case of random violence, the word innocent doesn’t mean lacking in guilt.  It means that the victims were unsuspecting and that their lives were taken without reason or rationale.  The events, tragic as they may be, are often impersonal and impossible to predict.  So while it’s good to understand that any of us can be subject to a random attack at any time, living in fear of unexpected violence only diminishes the quality of our lives.

For example, I spent the first weeks of 2008 documenting post election violence in Kenya and chronicling the lives of refugees from the genocide in Darfur.  While there were certainly dangers to be aware of in both locations, Americans were not the target in either.  I had learned how to calculate the risks, but I also knew that if I were to fall victim to violence, it wasn’t likely to be personal.

5.  Feel your feet.  In a very literal sense, feeling the bottom of your feet pressed against the rug, tile, pavement or dirt will help to ground you while you identify the fear and move it out of your body or to a part of your consciousness where it can be more easily analyzed and overcome.

For example, while working with a therapist to regain my sense of purpose and emotional well being following a divorce, I learned to feel my feet.  Though it certainly makes sense in retrospect, I’d never realized the extraordinary impact that fear had on my body.  I hadn’t acknowledged that my breathing shortened and my muscles tightened when I was afraid.  I had no idea that crossing my arms over my chest was a classic defensive posture suggesting to those around me that I was unwilling to participate in a dialogue openly, and perhaps not at all.  Because I was emotionally vulnerable and dealing with fears of rejection and loneliness, I was shielding myself, using my body as armor against whatever offense (or perceived offense) would next come my way.  Feeling my feet became the quick and easy reminder to ground myself, to identify the fear I was feeling and to move it out of my body.  I resisted it at first and even felt ridiculous when my therapist made the suggestion.  But it worked.  And most of all, it reminded me that I exist.

I exist.  So do the beggars in Varanasi … and the poor and homeless around the world.  So do terrorists, dictators, drug dealers, thieves, liars, the greedy, the violent and the judgmental.  So do doctors, lawyers, artists and clergy.  Yet we are all part of the human experience.  We are all part of the same universal consciousness that feeds our soul and nourishes our intuition, our desires and our capacity to forgive, to reconcile and to love.  We all share the knowledge that we will die.  And we all have choices about how to live our lives.  Removing fear from our life’s equation may not be possible, but understanding fear is possible.  Mitigating fear is possible.  It begins with asking the simple question – what am I afraid of and why?


Chip Duncan is an award-winning filmmaker whose work has been distributed in more than 140 countries around the world.  For additional information, visit

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