The pictures presented in this feature would never have been taken if fear had won the day. That fear still rode along the way, but could not compete with the shear joy of capturing moments in Milwaukee by camera. As Milwaukee residents sit around tables and talk about how to improve the city, nothing will change until individuals learn to replace their fears with something positive and constructive.
Personal fears are hard to admit to ourselves, and we are socially conditioned to not share them. There are rational reasons to have fear, like in a domestic violence situation. More are irrational, like zombies and perhaps clowns. Some fears borderline between the two, like the fear of heights.
In my case, I do not suffer from acrophobia, the extreme phobia of any height. Nor do I have a fear of falling, which is natural because while many laws are made to be broken the law of gravity is not one of them. I proudly admit that I am not fond of heights, yet I am also known for my high altitude photography. I am not a daredevil or thrill-seeker who jumps from one adrenaline rush to another. Quite the opposite, I continue to have the Boy Scout mentality of safety first. I always wear a seatbelt even when a vehicle is not in motion. I hold onto guard rails along the Lakefront, and if none exist I stay clear of the edge to prevent any possibility of falling into the water.
But the experience of living overseas for much of my life taught me that if I wanted to photograph a valley, I could not do it from the valley. I had to climb the mountain in order to get a proper view. So as the trail narrowed and the inclining slope became more extreme and steep, I had to will myself to take each step. The fear was nearly paralyzing, but I was even more driven to reach the elevation required to get the picture I saw in my head.
Looking out of a window from a tall building can make me feel a little dizzy. Yet I would later find myself hanging off the side of a skyscraper under construction without any safety gear, in order to get a photo from that view. When people talk about overcoming fear, it implies that the fear disappears. I prefer to think that fear is something we can manage, and not let control every action and decision we make.
When I was a photojournalist at the Milwaukee Business Journal, I repelled down the side of Miller Stadium for a Special Olympics charity event. No one else in the newsroom was comfortable with doing it, and neither was I. But I still immediately volunteered in order to document the experience. As I got into position for the decent, I truly wondered what I had gotten myself into. But the discomfort of dangling hundreds of feet was overshadowed by the irresistible quest for photos.
The fear of heights and maintaining my personal safety has never evaporated, not when I stand on the bell tower of City Hall or travel in chase vehicles at speed to photograph races. But the repetition of the confrontation has made me become comfortable with being uncomfortable. In spite of the fear, I can also enjoy the adventure in real time. Afterwards, however, I do marvel about how I survived the experience and make it a point to acknowledge that I somehow did.
The biggest lesson I learned was not that fear had ever kept me safe. It had kept me prisoner, and I did not have to be either brave or reckless to escape it. I just needed a reason to pull away from its grip, and thankfully that was photography.
Because I do not like taking selfies for social media, I coined my original land, sea, and air collection as “footies.” They show the positions I had to be in order to achieve capturing the pictures that I did.
To be sure, a fair deal of personal faith is involved in the process of facing fear. This essay was not intended to be a motivational speech or self-help lecture. But it was meant to share an example about how a passion for something, like photography, can help overcome a fear of practically anything. As a kid growing up I felt a lot of social anxiety to be around people who I did not know. Yet I attend massive public events nearly every week to photograph thousands of strangers.
Many people who I do know are stuck in their perpetual fear, a condition they are unwilling or unable to acknowledge. Some is rational, like if their children are sick, but other things not so much. Those mostly irrational fears surround the unknown and different. Milwaukee’s racial problems are rooted in fear. Not fear of crime, which is an extension, but the fear that white people have for people of color. And in reaction, the fear people of color have to be unfairly persecuted.
Anyone who follows the Milwaukee Streetcar on social media knows that the mere mention of it is like lobbing a hand grenade. The absolute and unbridled hate and anger so many people have about the project, usually by those individuals who do not live in the City of Milwaukee or Milwaukee County, is beyond belief. Yet the discussion is never held for the cause of this reaction. Further downstream in the process, the influences are usually due to political ideology. But further upstream the hate and anger likely evolved out of fear. Perhaps fear of change, fear of the loss of control, fear of “the other,” fear of the unknown. For all the talk of how great Milwaukee is, which is deserved, and how much hope local citizens have, there is a deep and poisonous fear in Milwaukee that the community fails to admit.
Milwaukee is in denial about a great many things, but they all trace back to some kind of fear. The most obvious expression of that fear is the generationally entrenched segregation. The people of Milwaukee reinforce their fears with every choice they make, even in the choices they avoid making.
With all that fear, only bad things result. My fear of falling is rational when I am hanging hundreds of feet up in the air. But that is not a situation I usually find myself in. I do not walk around Milwaukee at street level in fear, because there are tall buildings around me. I do not get angry because there are tall buildings, and one day I could find myself needing to be in one. I dislike heights, but I do not ask why we need more tall buildings, because riding the elevators is just uncomfortable and something no one should do.
Yet every day, we see examples of fear in Milwaukee. Fear that is stoked by choices in media consumption, time spent with negative friends, and the things that reinforce a need to protect the perceived virtue of fear. It is almost as if fear is intentionally nurtured, as a defense mechanism to avoid reality.
And for all that effort, fear itself never keeps us safe. Fear does not stop cancer or prevent car accidents. Fear does not train us to be better people, just more defensive. And fear offers no outlet other than hate and anger at the extreme.
To have public meetings about how to end fear in Milwaukee is a worthless effort. For all the examples I have given in facing my fears, the fears have never diminished. They still exist. But fear has lost its hold on me through exercise. And much like the Christian observance of Lent, fear is not something that can be given up unless something else displaces it by what we take on. An absolute and unbridled passion for photography has helped me push aside my fears.
We act like fears are silly things that we have outgrown, so live in denial about as adults. I am still cautious, because I understand that gravity is not forgiving. I do weigh the risks in every choice I make. Fear can be healthy when it challenges us, but not when it owns us. Wanting to take a photo is what drives me outside my comfort zone and past the irrational fears, especially the ones I have been socially conditioned to experience.
Milwaukee, as a collective community and individually, needs to find something to focus on with passion. It is passionate about criticism and blame, and other things that are negative and not constructive. But until people develop a passion for something good, and not even altruistic but a passion that drives their spirit, there will be no escape from the fear. The fear will never vanish or be challenged, because as poisonous as it is the habit is comfortable and familiar.
In order to break the cycle of perpetual fear, people need an irrational sense of hope at the other end of the spectrum. Taking pictures can be a bit of a rush for me, which is the antidote for the debilitating paralysis of fear.
As we meet around tables to talk about how to improve Milwaukee, that work begins and ends with each one of us. We do not need to be challenged to live the change we want to see in the world. Giving up fear is not about saving the world, it is about saving ourselves. The challenge is to find something that inspires our inner light.
A decade ago I watched a Samuel L. Jackson movie called “Coach Carter.” It was a typical sports story, and a racial story about inner city youth, a team of misfit kids who came of age and learned to be responsible young men. One of the most powerful monologs from that film asked what was our deepest fear. We tend to think that as kids, it is the monster under the bed. But as adults, fear can be something like always having to make people happy, or even the prospect of a lifetime with someone in marriage – which we delude ourselves to believe is always a happy thing.
The poem read in “Coach Carter” is often attributed in correctly, because it was remembered for who used it in a speech and not who wrote it. The last two lines are, in fact, the the Milwaukee Independent mission statement. The usual corporate boilerplates are mumbo jumbo that sound good but lack meaning. Those clinically express the mechanics of inspiration, without generating any of it.
Therefore, if the citizens of Milwaukee really want to make their home a better place, it starts with everyone finding a way to liberate themselves from fear.
“Our DEEPEST FEAR is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in ALL of us. As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson from “A Return to Love.”
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