UMD student tells stories of poverty, homelessness through photography

During the past few months, LakeVoice reporter and UMD student Daniel Badhwa set out to learn more about the issue of homelessness in Duluth and the Twin Cities. With a camera in hand, Badhwa explored the city, talking with people he encountered. Several of the people Badhwa photographed and interviewed shared stories of their current struggles with homelessness, but not all identified themselves as homeless. Below is a video, produced by Badhwa, that describes how he went about this project and what he learned both about himself and society. The article that follows shares some of the intimate portraits Badhwa captured as well as stories from Duluth and Twin Cities people living on the margins.

Shoes laced, camera secured, door locked, I turned and stepped off the porch of my Duluth home. I could feel the nerves setting in. Butterflies began to flutter.

I didn't know what to look for. All I knew was that I wanted to take portraits of people in the community. Who should I take portraits of? What should I look for?

I set off for downtown Duluth, examining everyone I passed. I was too hesitant to even smile and wave. No one seemed like they wanted to talk to me. They kept to themselves.

As I stared out at the foggy lake, I began to give up hope.

No one is going to talk to me, I thought to myself.

Not long after, someone approached me.

“Excuse me,” said a voice.

I turned and saw a middle-aged man in worn out clothes. I stood there, not knowing how to interact or what to do.

“Hi,” I said.

The man began to mumble something I initially couldn’t understand.

“I'm looking for work, do you have any spare change?” he asked.

I told him I didn’t have anything, and immediately, I turned and headed quickly in the other direction. I had an instantaneous desire to punch myself in the gut with disgust.

I continued on, holding back the desire to sprint back to the man and introduce myself. I felt too awkward to fix what I had already broken. Too angry with myself to continue, I headed back home, hoping I would have better luck next time.

Overcoming my fear

A few days later, I hopped on a bus, hoping an opportunity would fall into my lap. I stared out the giant windows of the bus, studying everyone who was strolling down the sidewalk.

The bus lurched forward and back, as the driver slammed on the gas and break. I held on for dear life as the driver seemed to stop on a dime a few blocks after I got on the bus.

As I glanced at who was stepping on the bus, the butterflies came back with a vengeance.

It was the same man from the other day, I thought to myself. I watched as he slowly moved his way to the back of the bus.

Where's he going? I thought. He stepped closer and sat directly behind me, obviously not recognizing me.

I sat motionless for several minutes as an internal battle ensued. I need to talk to him, I thought. I can't mess this up a second time. What's the worst thing that can happen?

Swallowing my fear, I turned around, looked the man straight in the eye, and held out my hand.

“Hi, my name is Daniel. We spoke on the street the other day,” I said.

The man looked at me for a moment as if trying to remember the experience. His face then lit up as he lifted his hand to shake mine.

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“I'm Ron,” he said.

I explained that I was looking for people who would be willing to let me take their portrait for a project I wanted to start. He sat there, bewildered, as if not too sure what to think of me.

“It'll only take a minute. I'll show it to you when I'm done,” I said.

He agreed, and I grabbed my camera.

“Just look into the camera, and give me a serious look,” I said.

The shutter slapped several times as the digital file was rendered to the screen. I showed it to Ron. He seemed satisfied and began to tell me his story.

"I'm from Jackson, Miss.," Ron said. "I came here looking for work...and I'm a Vikings fan," he added.

After a short conversation, I asked him if there was any way I could contact him to show him the edited version of the picture.

Ron shook his head. There wasn't. He said that he didn't have a regular home or his own permanent address. That response took a moment to fully sink in.

The bus approached Superior Street and Lake Avenue in downtown Duluth where I needed to get off.

I thanked Ron for agreeing to allow me to take his portrait, and he thanked me for taking the time to talk to him.

I stepped off the bus. The butterflies were replaced with exhilaration. It was a fantastic feeling. This is what I want to do, I thought to myself.

Before the light at the intersection changed and the bus continued on, I spotted a woman standing at the corner.

“Hello, my name is Daniel."

Homelessness in the Duluth community

Homelessness has become a more recognized issue in Duluth. CHUM, a local nonprofit organization, works to alleviate homelessness.

The organization provides food and shelter to those who are living on the margins of society, serving around 7,000 people each year. The organization's food shelf provides 18,500 meals each month, and emergency housing is available to those who are in need. Last year, 631 single men and 228 women were provided shelter at CHUM.

Kim Randolph, the stabilization services director at CHUM, said many of the problems faced by people seeking services at the organization stem from drug use.

“A lot of people that come here are hooked on synthetic drugs,” Randolph said. “That has been a big problem for us. We can't let them stay if the look like they've been on the stuff. Some of them are in the situation they are because when they get any money, they spend it on drugs rather than food or housing.”

This pulls them down and dampens the possibility that they can recover, Randolph added.

Many of us even seem to have an unwarranted phobia toward the homeless. Sure, it's important to be smart and careful, however, what makes us move to the other side of the sidewalk when we see a homeless man?

Stories from those on the margins

Lester copy

Studying Superior Street, I glanced down the street to notice someone slowly zigzagging their way through the crowd, not seeming to have a destination. The man weaved in and out of the lines of pedestrians, who all looked to be on a mission. He was wearing a large parka with a furry hood, the texture of which caught my attention.

I caught up to him when he stopped to light a cigarette. The initial glance he gave me was intimidating. I nearly didn't introduce myself, but I held out my hand.

“I'm Lester,” said the man.

Lester identified himself to me as homeless. He was polite, well spoken and friendly. He told me that he is a college graduate.

After explaining my project, Lester agreed to pose for me. We crossed the street to a more shaded area.

Lester began to tell me a little about his life. He said while in college, he was studying chemical engineering.

I didn't graduate as an engineer, Lester said. I ended up graduating with a few consolation prizes, he added.

He said he has been traveling across the country for years now. He started in Arkansas and wandered around through Iowa before coming to Duluth.

I've been here for two years, and I like Lake Superior, Lester said.

After discussing what I wanted out of the portrait, I focused the camera and snapped away. Shortly after, we shook hands and parted ways.

That went well, I thought to myself.

As I continued, I began to narrow my search. I looked for those that I felt would be the most interesting and willing to talk to me.

I began to notice that many of these people — most of whom were alone — simply needed someone to ask them how they were doing. Often, they seem surprised that I wanted to talk to them. Some were flattered and even excited that I wanted to take their picture.

It surprised me how much interacting with some of these people brightened their day. It didn’t seem to take much to pick them up. No one up to this point had been offended that I asked to take their picture.

Transitioning to Minneapolis


"You're not the first to take my picture," said a man named Don, who I met in Minneapolis. "There was a girl who came and asked to take my picture," he continued. "She was nice. I'm sure I'm on the internet somewhere. I don't mind."

I asked Don how he felt about me approaching him to take his picture. "It blows me away," Don said.

It was a chilly afternoon. Don had been sitting out in the cold for several hours, holding a sign that said, “I need a cold beer.”

“At least you're honest,” I said. “I respect that. Isn't it getting cold out here?”

"Nah, I've lived in Minnesota my whole life," Don said. "I'm used to it," he added.

One thing I've been curious about is how these people deal with the cold Minnesota winters — not having a warm bed to curl up in, no hot cocoa to come home to, no roaring fire in the fireplace, just the unwelcoming cold ground.

“Do you know anyone else I can talk to?” I said.

"Yeah there's a guy down there,"Don said.

I turned and glanced down the block where Don was pointing and noticed another man standing underneath a Skyway and made my way toward him.

My anxiety of approaching people had slowly dissipated. I started to challenge myself more and approached many people who I would not have had the courage to approach initially.

That's when I met David.

I spotted swaying elbows moving left and right before my eyes fell on the 63-year-old man who told me he was homeless. The man was rocking out on a harmonica. I knew I had to approach him.

“Excuse me, I'm Daniel.”

"Hello Daniel...I'm David," said the man.

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David didn’t seem to have much of a sense of personal space. After telling me a story about how he had hit a guy one time, he placed his hand on my cheek in order to show where he placed the blow.

Determined to get his portrait, I remained calm and stayed focused.

After a lengthy conversation about David's life, I gave him a few dollars in return for a portrait, which he seemed to greatly appreciate.

David, along with many others in Duluth and the Twin Cities, have agreed to allow me to take their portrait. As I make my way down the urban streets, I continue to search for those eye-catching individuals to bring their stories to light.

I don't plan on putting an end to this project anytime soon. I can't thank these people enough for the difference they've made in my life.

I just hope that I can be a small spark in their day.
 I don't think what I do has a large impact on these people. However, sometimes it's the little things in life that mean a lot.

Editor's note: The introduction to this story and the narrative have been updated to clarify that Badwha's photographs include people from both Duluth and the Twin Cities.

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