Americans share their greatest fears

Story highlights

  • To better understand his subjects, Mike Belleme asked them about their fears
  • He was surprised by how many similarities he found across different backgrounds

(CNN)Photographer Mike Belleme says that in the last few years, he has noticed a greater sense of fear throughout the United States.

And our fears, he says, have polarized us.
    "I think a lot of the reason for that is just a lack of connecting to the sense of other, someone who's different from you, and a lack of understanding and empathy toward people in different experiences," he said.
    It's those observations that led Belleme to document this subject in an in-depth manner. For every portrait in his series "States of Fear," he asks the person he's photographing a simple question: What is your greatest fear or concern?
    He chose the words "fear" and "concern" specifically. Fear, he says, makes people look inward, where they think about themselves and how they feel. Concern makes people look outward, as it is something people usually have for others -- like concern for their family and friends or concern for their community and country.
    Photographer Mike Belleme
    "Using conversations about fear to create empathy is kind of the antidote for me," Belleme said. "It's trying to challenge myself to question my own stereotypes and preconceived notions and biases."
    By challenging himself, Belleme hopes to challenge the viewer of his images as well, to encourage them to come along with him on this journey and question their own ways of thinking about people who may seem so different than they are.
    He says there are a lot of gaps in our country that need to be bridged -- whether economic, religious, racial, political -- and he hopes to create a sense of connectedness in a seemingly disconnected climate.
    "The polarized nature of the country right now is more of the topic of the project," Belleme said. "And that's really what I'm addressing more so than the fear. I'm using fear as a way to address this."
    Fear can be a unifier -- in both positive and negative ways -- and what Belleme has been doing throughout this work is trying to find the parallels between people based on their fears and concerns.

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    "It creates a more complex view of our population, where it's not just like you've got everyone over here versus everyone over here," he said. "All of a sudden, as I'm tying people together through their fears, I'm seeing that they have a lot of similarities in the things they fear and their human struggle."
    Chris Valetin, for instance, is 62 years old and fears ISIS and the America that the next generation will live in. And Mohammed Quraishi, who is just 21 and is perhaps considered the next generation, fears extremists harming his siblings in Iraq.
    There's also Peggy May, 46, who lives in Lewiston, Maine. After three marriages and four children, she came out as a gay woman about five years ago, and she fears discrimination and hate crimes. She also touched on some other aspects of her city that scare her, such as immigrants and people's lack of understanding for her culture.
    Fatuma Hussein, 39, lives in the same city as May. Lewiston has a large Somali population, as a number of refugees and asylum seekers from Somalia have resettled in the United States. Hussein's family is Somali, and all her children are American-born. Although she's lived in the United States her whole life, she fears never having a place to belong.
    Belleme says he had a lot of moments where, while he was talking to one person, he would realize how their story connected to someone else's. He also met people who surprised him.
    "You think you know what they're going to say, kind of, and you think you have some sense of expectation of whom they're going to be, and that's a really hard thing to turn off in your brain," he said. "We're not as perceptive as we think we are. We think we know people. We think we can figure people out really quickly."
    Someone that especially surprised Belleme was a San Francisco woman named Teal Brown Zimring. She told him about her struggles with bipolar disorder, and she opened up about her difficulties being raised by a bipolar mother.
    "To me, when I first met her, she had this very professional persona, and me, I'm like a country boy, I live in the woods in North Carolina," Belleme said. "She got very, very vulnerable with me, which is not something I expected from her in those first interactions. Which made me feel terrible because I had made that judgment and I was so wrong. She ended up being one of the most real and genuine people that I met in the entire, almost year, that I've been working on this."
    It's portraits such as Zimring's that challenged Belleme the most. And he says that's only a good thing.
    "The photos that are really for you are the ones that challenge you," he said. "That's the purpose of the project, is to challenge people: challenge their stereotypes, challenge their ideas of thinking of human beings. The powerful ones for me are the ones where, I had an idea coming into this who they were going to be, and they shattered that idea."
    So far, Belleme has photographed about 75-80 people in 11 states. He says a few fears were repeated a lot, including the fear of terrorism and, more recently, the fear of another world war. But there are also people like World War II veteran and artist Irwin Tuttle, who told Belleme he fears nothing.
    "The deeper you go with someone, the more you realize that you probably don't have all the information," he said. "When you really hear the whole story, completely hear them out, you can completely understand why they feel the way they feel."