When photographer Mike Belleme set out to capture a portrait of America in 2016, he found a nation teetering on a precipice of change and riddled with insecurity. But unlike the hard lines of black-and-white campaigns, fear in the heart is a nuanced spectrum.

When photographer Mike Belleme set out to capture a portrait of America in 2016, he found a nation teetering on a precipice of change and riddled with insecurity. But unlike the hard lines of black-and-white campaigns, fear in the heart is a nuanced spectrum.

America is afraid. This is nothing new. It’s a collective state of mind heightened during any election period, as our fears are preyed upon to rally the troops. But after interviewing dozens of people about their own fears – their relationship to fear and the psychology of fear – the consensus seems to be that we are more freaked out today than at any other time in memory.

And this may well be true. Some argue that there is more to be afraid of today than ever before. There is more of everything; more people roaming the planet, more potential for things to go wrong. Others say that, in this age of information, it’s more a matter of awareness; the product of a relentless stream of atrocities feeding into our psyche.

What we fear says a lot about us as individuals and as a country, but it’s how we react to those fears that becomes the measure of our character. Fear can be crippling, or it can be the greatest motivator of all. While some people dedicate their lives to overcoming their demons, fear can also leave us feeling vulnerable.God-fear-QuoteBut America isn’t just afraid, it’s polarised. And talk of fear, in times like these, only serves to emphasise that separation, especially when it reveals vast differences in our principles and ideals. Fear can also be a great unifier, though – a primal emotion experienced by anything with a brain stem. People who seem different in almost every way sometimes fear the same things; in fact, many people point to the aftermath of 9/11 as one of the most united times in America’s modern history.

According to studies published by The Guardian in 2014, you can determine a person’s political affiliation based on a brain scan with 82.9 per cent accuracy. Apparently, the portion of our brain that responds to fear is more active in more politically conservative people. After reading this bizarre fact, I couldn’t help but wonder; am I living in an epicentre of fear?

To understand how someone with such extreme and hateful ideas like Donald Trump could get elected as a mainstream party presidential candidate, I set out across the rural South – through coal country in Kentucky and Virginia; through the God-fearing backroads of Tennessee and South Carolina – with an open mind and a simple question: “What is your greatest fear or concern?” And I chose my words deliberately.

‘Fear’ makes you look inward. At a time replete with political platitudes, I wanted people to dig deep and speak from the heart. ‘Concern’, on the other hand, is something you usually have for someone else, when you’re thinking of the bigger picture outside of yourself. Together, these simple words elicited an honest outpouring of responses; some straightforward and banal, some that I could never have predicted.

But more interesting than the individual fears were their connections. Each person’s story is compelling in its own way, but it’s the tapestry they weave together, when taken as a whole, that paints a revealing portrait of the American psyche today.

Dawn York, 53, Columbia, South Carolina, Death Claims Agent for Colonial Life Insurance
Fear: Terrorism

fear01Dawn’s son is in the US Air Force and will be stationed in Qatar for the next four years.

“I worry about it in general, but especially because of my son. I have a fear he could be a target just for being in the military.”

Muhammed Quraishi, 21, Knoxville, Tennessee Restaurant server
Fear: Extremists killing his family in Iraq

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Mohammed fled to Lebanon from Iraq with his mother and younger brother in 2010, and was then relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee almost three years ago. His older brother and sister were over eighteen and were therefore not granted refugee status. Mohammed’s family has been separated for six years.

“My father was a translator for the US Army and he was shot and killed. When my brother got married, I could not be there. There is no way to go back, I would be stupid to go. You don’t have a future in Iraq, you don’t know when you’re gonna die.”

Ann Dunn, 69, Asheville, North Carolina, Professor of Humanities at University of North Carolina at Asheville
Fear: Empathetic fear for the suffering of the world

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Alongside her career in academia and the arts, Ann has been an activist for most of her life. She was involved in the United States’ Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and even helped facilitate an underground railroad to Canada for US defectors during the Vietnam War draft. Now, with her activism days behind her, she can only sit back and see images on the news and feel the pain of the world’s tragedies.

“While I am fortunate enough not to feel fear in my own daily life, I do feel deeply what I think of as empathetic fear. When I look into the eyes of a Syrian civil war refugee child or a father desperately trying to save his baby; when I look into the eyes of four Mexican drug war refugee children backed against a wall by a large uniformed customs officer; when I look into the eyes of a refugee Tutsi mother and her child escaped from the Rwandan genocide – I experience their terror in my core. Their fear becomes my fear.”

Warren Scoggins, 83, Columbia, South Carolina, Owner of Warren’s Battery Service and Korean War veteran
Fear: Threats from beyond our borders

fear03Warren has owned his small battery business for over thirty years and has lived in the Columbia area for his entire life.

“We gonna get flooded if they don’t do nothing, that’s my opinion on it. We need to get things squared away where we can guard our country. We got people just walking in and they ain’t doing nothing. We really gotta get our borders fixed. I’m afraid they just gonna come in and you don’t know who’s a good guy and who ain’t a good guy. And that’s bad because, you can start shooting people when they walk in your yard, but that’s not what you should do. We should have enough law to take care of these things.”

Gerald Stoudemire, 69, Little Mountain, South Carolina, President of South Carolina branch of the National Rifle Association; owner of Little Mountain Gun and Supply
Fear: Politicians’ attempt to take away Second Amendment rights

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Gerald has been teaching gun safety classes and advocating for responsible gun usage for twenty-nine years.

“I think politicians are more dangerous to guns than rust. My number one fear right now is politicians using violent crime and mass shootings to further their candidacy. They’re trying to create fear in the masses. The one thing that keeps our country as free as it is, is the Constitution with the Second Amendment being the protector of all other amendments.”

Damien Trott, 21, Columbia, South Carolina Mascot for Liberty Tax Service
Fear: Gang violence and bullies

fear06Damien is working his first job at Liberty Tax Service where he stands on the roadside wearing a Statue of Liberty suit while trying to attract potential customers.

“I was jumped a couple years ago. I got tazed really bad and went to the hospital. I feel kinda iffy when I’m out. You never know what might happen. Protect yourself at all times.”

Betty Council, 64, Asheville, North Carolina, Professor, activist, and entrepreneur
Fear: The future for African-American youth

fear07Betty, a professor at a community college in Asheville, NC, is in the process of starting a basketball league focused on education and enrichment for African-American adults and children.

“My biggest fear is that things won’t change in the school system, and African- American students will continue on the downward spiral toward the pipeline to prison.”

Melvin Kyle, 46, Knoxville, Tennessee
Fear: Imprisonment

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Melvin was recently released from prison for a violent assault that he argues was out of self-defence after being held at gunpoint. He says he was protecting his family. Melvin has two daughters who are 3 and 7 years old and one 25-year-old son.

“I just got out of prison and it’s been rough ever since. I’m worried about my son trying to follow my footsteps.”

Sgt. Rob Farley, 39, Harlan, Kentucky Sergeant, Kentucky State Police
Fear: Inability to express love to family and friends

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Sgt. Farley understands that police officers in the United States have a tainted reputation, but believes that the public’s fear of police is grounded in “isolated incidents.” However, his fears lie close to home rather than in the line of duty.

“My biggest fear is expressing to the ones in my inner circle, my family and friends, that I love them. I don’t want to fail in that aspect of my life. My kids know that I love them, but I’m not a very open person. As a police officer, I don’t express emotions and whatnot.”

Tom Pierce, 30, Knoxville, Tennessee Nationalist politician and activist
Fear: Eternity and the final judgement

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Tom is running for county commissioner in his district of Knoxville as an independent, but self-identifies as a Nationalist, which includes a “super nostalgia” for the American past. He has never supported any mainstream party politician, but is voting as a Republican for the first time in his life in order to support Donald Trump.

Tom believes that the world should be culturally and racially segregated and hosts confederate flag rallies in order to fight for his right to fly it.

“What’s my eternal destination going to be? What’s my neighbour’s eternal destination going to be? I worry about it all the time. We are all predisposed to evil and we’re gonna stand judgement one day for every deed we did whether it was seen by man or not. It’s all gonna be revealed. Any time I’m in a situation and don’t mention it I feel like I’m gonna have to answer for that at the Judgement.”

Missy Bianchi, 48, Harlan, Kentucky Stylist at her family’s funeral home
Fear: The life decisions of her children (ages 16, 17, and 22)

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Missy married into the funeral home business and now styles the hair and makeup of the deceased. Having spent a great deal of time so close to death, she has become comfortable with the thought of her own because of her Christian faith. Instead, she fears the future choices that her children will make. Her oldest son is in the U.S. Air Force, and she fears the consequences of the life-altering decisions that he will be forced to make on his own as an adult.

“He is at that threshold where he is making his own decisions. I just have to sit back and let him do it. That’s hard for a parent. We still have some say in what happens to them. My faith colours everything about my life. For them to stray away from their faith would be, in my opinion, the worst thing that could happen to them.”

Forest Wallingford, 22, Asheville, North Carolina Student and photographer
Fear: Becoming alienated from religious family

fear12

Due to religious pressures, Forest has become estranged from her father’s family. They are evangelical Christian Republicans while she is a politically liberal atheist. She was unable to visit with her family for the last eight years, but recently made a trip to Missouri to try to salvage the relationship.

“One of my biggest fears is the idea of disappointing my family and losing contact with them because of my disbelief in God. I have completely lost touch with my father because of it. He is so afraid of the person that I have become and the lifestyle that I lead that he hasn’t touched my bedroom closet since I lived with him when I was 12 years old, perhaps in an effort to preserve the God- fearing girl that I once was. My grandmother is afraid for my soul.

“She sends me packages almost monthly filled with Christian books, tracts, and candy. It’s a bizarre feeling to know that someone you love truly believes that you are going to spend eternity in Hell. But I’m also afraid that they’ll stop sending the notes and the books because that will mean that they’ve lost hope form my salvation and have given up. That’s kind of terrifying too.”

Carl Mumpower, 63, Asheville, North Carolina Clinical psychiatrist and former Republican politician
Fear: Future effects of America’s “postponement culture”

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Year after year, Republican politician Carl Mumpower is voted the “Most Hated Man in Asheville,” due in part to his hardline on immigration. He says he has never had the fear of rejection that drives almost all politicians. In his practice as a clinical psychiatrist, he deals with other people’s fears every day.

His own fear is not for himself, but that America’s “postponement culture” will result in a painful reckoning where debt from excessive government spending will eventually cripple the country.

“You don’t get around reality when the bill is finally due. I am fearful of the consequences for many people. We’ve been stealing off of your future and when you find out, you are going to be really upset with us, and rightfully so.”

“I think fear is the single most destructive psychological variable there is… I describe fear as psychological cancer. I saw fear as the enemy and I’ve worked hard to battle with fear. When I fear something, I do it twice.”

Nigel McCourry, 34, Asheville, North Carolina, Iraq War veteran
Fear: Complacency

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After serving in Iraq, Nigel returned to the US suffering from severe PTSD, resulting in extreme feelings of isolation, insomnia, and debilitating hyper-vigilance. Nigel was part of a trial experiment in South Carolina in which soldiers with PTSD were treated with MDMA. He believes that it successfully treated his PTSD and is now trying to find the balance between hyper-vigilance and complacency.

“We got shot at every day. After three months it was like primitive survival mode. There were signs in Iraq that read ‘Complacency Kills.’ Becoming complacent makes you vulnerable and lazy. Fear can be a good friend or a wicked enemy. As a friend, fear allows us to identify our own insecurities and weaknesses, and it communicates to us when we are in danger.

“As an enemy, it haunts us and makes us targets of manipulation. Difficult situations have given me the tendency to shut myself off emotionally. Through the years, I’ve found that this never allows for happiness, and that allowing myself to become vulnerable brings joy.”

Robert Gibson, 44, Harlan, Kentucky Coal miner
Fear: Being laid off and having to leave everything behind

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After a decade of coal mining, Robert is facing the very real possibility that he could lose his job and have to start over somewhere new as more and more coal mines shut down.

“My biggest fear would be having to leave. I’m too old to change now – don’t want to. I’ve been here all my life. This is what we love. It ain’t looking good around here. We’ll see what the next administration does. It’s depressing seeing all the empty houses and people picking up and moving. I’ve seen friends get laid off and have to sell everything they worked for.”

Troy Hall, 47, Loyall, Kentucky (photographed in Knoxville, Tennessee) Mormon priest
Fear: Being homeless and alone

fear21Troy abandoned his life in Loyall, Kentucky and checked into a hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee on what he describes as God’s direct instruction. After running out of money, he took a ride back to Kentucky for fear of becoming homeless with hopes of returning to his apartment. Upon his arrival in Kentucky, he found that his belongings had already been moved out and the landlord would not allow him back in. They called the police and Troy was arrested.

“I’m not just talking, I know things are coming. The prophets in the Bible had visions of things to come, and I have those and I’ve had a vision of the glory of God coming. I don’t know what the Lord has called me to Knoxville for – I can’t do all this. I’m just asking for support and help. I don’t want to go back to Kentucky; I hate Kentucky. It’s dangerous. I’m scared of being alone.”

This story originally appeared in Huck 55 – The Freaked Out IssueGet it now from the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you don’t miss another.

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