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The hopeful photography of Chip Duncan

Kristi Kates - September 14th, 2009
The Hopeful Photography
of Chip Duncan
Photojournalist’s humanitarian images featured at Crooked Tree
By Kristi Kates 9/14/09

Photographer and photojournalist Chip Duncan spent the early ‘80s garnering experience as a TV news reporter at an NBC affiliate, a job that he says helped him “understand the range of experience and challenges facing journalists and photographers.”
During the past 10 years, Duncan’s filmmaking has been aimed more towards the national public television audience; his work through his own Duncan Group documentary company has seen his productions air everywhere from PBS and the Discovery Channel to the Travel Channel and HBO.
His most recent documentary production, a one-hour biography on President Herbert Hoover, will air nationally on PBS on October 26, and his most recent photography exhibition will visit Petoskey from September to mid-November at the Crooked Tree Arts Center.

Duncan says that shooting still photography was a natural progression for him; he began shooting motion (film/video) in 1980, and moved into stills in 2003, lately making the transition from film to digital photography.
“The shooting style and equipment may change, but it’s still photojournalism,” he explains. “Film is not going the way of the dinosaur; but still photographers are now being exposed to the same technologies and options that have been in place in the TV and motion picture industry for years.”
Much of Duncan’s still works focus on portraits of people in the developing world; it’s the interaction with people who are living under difficult circumstances that fuels his interest, and his hope as far as the impact of his work is to break stereotypes while shedding light on the similarities between cultures and people.
“I believe that most people are innately good, and that most of us are simply trying to get through our lives in a meaningful, interesting, healthy, and fulfilling way,” Duncan says. “Most people do not want nor do they invite conflict. The idea that the average Afghan or Iraqi is any more of an extremist than the American is simply false. There are very few extremists in the USA or elsewhere. That said, they can be found anywhere and they often do everything within their means to create chaos and to have their voices heard. My own way to navigate the world is to spend time searching for hope, reinforcing the good, and using my professional or personal resources to help give a voice to people or situations that, for whatever reason, lack the resources to do it themselves. I try not to make value judgments about cultures, religions or governments I don’t know or haven’t experienced; I try not to view extremism in the developing world differently than I view it at home. Terrorism has been around for thousands of years. It’s not going away any time soon.”

Crooked Tree Visual Arts Director and Gallery Manager Gail DeMeyere met Duncan at last year’s Bobby Kennedy exhibition, and found his work immediately riveting.
“The most striking thing about the photography of Chip Duncan is the honesty with which he tells his story,” DeMeyere explains. “some of these images are not pretty. Some are painful to imagine. Yet there is the core human experience that connects his work. People in the end want certain basic things: dignity, joy, purpose of being and hope for a better world for the next generation. Chip is clear in his mission to reveal that through his Images of Humanity and Hope, there are common threads that weave cultures together.”
While Duncan’s favorite place to film or shoot images is Peru (“I’ve been there a dozen times, and it keeps growing on me,” he enthuses), he says that the most difficult place to shoot was Darfur, in part due to security concerns and government and infrastructure restrictions, but more so because he feels there are fewer options for the people who are suffering.
“Until the international community - and by that I mean governments - decides to take on the issue in a meaningful way, the people of Darfur will continue to be marginalized - which in the case of Darfur means relocation and refugee camps, poverty, suffering, and worse. If it were not for NGOs such as Relief International ( for more info), there would be no help at all.”

Duncan’s latest exhibition - the one Petoskey and Northern Michigan residents will get a chance to view - will likely serve as a thought-provoking reminder that not everyone around the world is as fortunate as many of us living in relative safety here. But the commonality continues that no matter where one’s residence might be, the basic needs of people are the same no matter where in the world you might go.
“It’s hard to say what a viewer will experience when they come to the exhibition,” Duncan ponders, “my sense is that they’ll get a better understanding of how similar people are and how many of us value the same things - family, work, humor. I also think the exhibition helps to break down stereotypes about Muslim men. My experience suggests that fear is often irrational and often causes unnecessary problems.
“Many of the pictures of Muslim men in the exhibition show them in a very different way than they’re portrayed in various news media. And certainly, they are not the same images our government wanted us to see after 9/11. People are people - and I’ve met many, many good people all over the world.”
DeMeyere agrees, and hopes that Duncan’s photographs will also encourage people to help others.
“As much as we are different, we are really more the same,” she says. “life has a beginning, a middle and an end, and if you are privileged to live a life less challenging tham the people who appear in these images, perhaps you can take away from the exhibition gratitude, perspective and, through relief organizations, the desire to contribute to those less fortunate than us living here in Northern Michigan.”

The official opening for Chip Duncan’s Images of Humanity and Hope will be held on Friday, September 18 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Crooked Tree Arts Center in downtown Petoskey. Chip Duncan will give a Coffee at Ten presentation of his work on September 18 at 10 a.m. Other programming for this exhibition will be announced; the exhibition itself runs through November 11. For more information on Duncan’s work, visit

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