Cultivating Love and Empathy: Alumna Reveals Humanity

In early 2023, alumna Max Brunner (Digital Art and Photography ’12) had a longing for human connection, so she took a walk. That walk has led to hundreds of photographs and answers to the question, “What do you love about yourself?”

Those portraits and narratives are collected in Brunner’s ongoing photography project, Folks of Duluth, which is displayed in posts on Facebook and Instagram. Each post presents a portrait of the person Brunner met on the streets of Duluth and is captioned with their answer to her question, plus some details about their life. 

Many, but not all, of the people who are photographed are homeless, and as noted on Folks of Duluth’s About page on Facebook, Brunner hopes to humanize their experience: 

Creating artwork by the use of photography is a way of life for me. I strive to show parts of humanity that many individuals do not care to think about or often notice at first glance. As a society, we choose what we want to see and through these photographs and written word, the viewer is confronted with parts of the human condition that are swept underneath the rug. By walking the streets of Duluth, individuals allow me to enter their intimate space in order for me to capture their story, even parts that are not pleasant or socially accepted.

Brunner’s process for documenting her conversations has evolved over time. When she began Folks of Duluth, Brunner carried around her Canon Mirrorless camera along with a pen and paper to capture stories. She then switched to Google Docs on her cell phone to get notes down faster. Now she voice records the conversations and later listens to them repeatedly to accurately transcribe them.  

The project has also evolved to now include an audience beyond social media. Portions of Folks of Duluth have been displayed at the Duluth Public Library and in the Zeitgeist Atrium for the Duluth Superior Pride 2023 Art Exhibition. Prints at the 2023 exhibition sold for $10 with the goal of donating a portion of the funds to local organizations. 

Ultimately, Brunner’s goal for her art is “to create awareness in order to inspire inward change.”

Headshot of Max Brunner
Max Brunner

Such awareness is often cultivated by curiosity. Brunner noted, “Folks of Duluth, in general, can spark

 many internal questions, which creates ‘wonder’ and drives our search for explanation and understanding. When I am walking the streets, I might wonder, Will this person be rece

ptive to me approaching them?, and Will this person be safe to approach? Similarly, the person I am approaching might wonder, Why is this person approaching me? What does this person want?

That spark of inquiry is not limited to initial encounters. Brunner elaborated, “After we part ways from our interaction, I might wonder, Will I ever see this person again?, What this is person thinking about right now?, or Did I make an impact on their life just by listening?

Brunner’s choice to share the portraits and stories on social media on a weekly basis extends the opportunity for wonder to viewers, who might ponder: Where is this person today? Is this person okay? Conversely, the person depicted might wonder, Will my story create change?

Given the plethora of supportive comments on Brunner’s posts, it’s fair to say the individual stories and Brunner’s overall project are cultivating empathy, and not just for the people photographed. In providing a rationale for her question, the Folks of Duluth Facebook page’s About section shares: “We can easily take the time to think about another person and reasons for why we love them, yet we seldom give ourselves that same courtesy. So my question for you is, what do you love about yourself?”

Selections from Folks of Duluth will again be displayed during the Duluth Superior Pride 2024 Art Exhibition from August 30 – September 30, 2024 in the Zeitgeist Atrium. 

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