BEMIDJI, Minn. — Brandon Ferdig remembers how it all started.
He was a high school student in Blackduck, Minnesota. He was visiting the home of a classmate’s grandmother when he noticed a photo that piqued his curiosity. It was a picture of the woman and her late husband. Ferdig started asking the grandmother questions about her life.
He’s still asking lots of questions. In fact, Ferdig, 40, has created a career for himself as a citizen journalist. The Minnesota man has a multimedia catalog of work that includes documentaries, a YouTube channel, a book, several published stories, podcasts and a weekly newsletter. He also has traveled extensively around the world.
It’s all about that curiosity.
“Yes, that’s what I always go back to when I look back on this work,” Ferdig said. “I would have conversations with older adults that most teenagers wouldn’t have bothered having.”
Conversations like the one he had with his friend’s grandmother.
“I never met her husband because he passed before her,” Ferdig recalled. “But there was a picture of them when they were younger. It just struck me that for many years now she had been a widow. And I thought how odd would that be or how much of an adjustment would that be. In those days you meet someone when you’re 19; you marry them.
"He died in his 50s or 60s, and now she’s moving on for many years. I just asked her, straight up, ‘What’s it like going to bed alone now after all these years?’ She actually teared up talking about it. I remember later telling my girlfriend that, and she just asked me, ‘Why did you ask that? That’s a hard question.’ But to me, it wasn’t inappropriate. It was thoughtful. And the grandma didn’t mind. She appreciated the question, I think. So that was something I began to pick up on as a teenager, interviewing people.”
In his junior year of high school in Blackduck, Ferdig took a psychology class. “I was just so intrigued by it that I ended up majoring in it,” he said. He attended Concordia University in St. Paul and finished his degree at the University of Minnesota, where he also worked at the school’s Center for Twin and Family Research.
“My interest in people was as strong as ever,” he said, “but my interest in lab work wasn’t.” He also interned at a counseling center, but “didn’t love that, either.”
Ferdig decided to start doing independent journalism, going back to his love of interviewing people. It’s not necessarily a lucrative career, and he has had to take on other jobs to make ends meet over the years. He has sold insurance, taught English abroad, waited tables and worked as a substitute teacher.
Meanwhile, he also has traveled the world, visiting or living in places such as China, Guatemala, Cuba, Malaysia and Tanzania.
After teaching English and living in China for nearly a year, he returned to his home in the Twin Cities and wrote a book titled “Life Learned Abroad. Lessons in Humanity from China.”
“For me, travel is almost like a spiritual thing,” Ferdig said. “I have a way of almost just leaving my problems at home, responsibilities like bills, and women and status. All that ego stuff. I was free and I felt connected to the world. It was just pure curiosity. That’s all I was going by. I haven’t been good at being strategic about my career at all. That’s a real weakness. I’ve been able to eat and pay rent somehow.”
In recent years, Ferdig has found success with YouTube documentaries and videos. He is able to make money when the pieces go viral. An example is an interview with “Arkansas Bill.” Brandon was on a trip through the southern United States when he noticed a rural Arkansas home that was full of clutter. There was a bed on the lawn, a live donkey, a deer skull. And a Confederate flag flying.
“I stopped alongside the road and started photographing,” Ferdig said. “Out he comes. I was worried.” But the guy was friendly, and the resulting video, titled “Interview with an Arkansas ‘Redneck'" has been viewed 4.3 million times. Ferdig has posted two follow-up interviews with Bill.
“His videos get comments every day,” Ferdig said. “That’s where the power of social media has really revealed itself to me. When the algorithm is in your favor, those are the gods now. YouTube for some reason picked up on my Arkansas Bill video. I can make some money from that. When you get into the millions of views, you’re talking thousands of dollars. So it can be real money.”
Another recent YouTube documentary came about after Ferdig came home to the Blackduck area for the deer hunting opener last fall. On his way home, he noticed a number of Donald Trump flags flying in the area, despite the fact that Trump had lost the 2020 presidential election a few days earlier.
“Trump Country — After Trump” is a 30-minute film featuring interviews with a Hubbard County couple and a Blackduck area family who are loyal to the former president. It has been viewed 4,700 times since it was posted four months ago.
His movie titled “The Wall” chronicled life at a Native American homeless tent camp in Minneapolis in 2018. “I documented the rise of this camp known as ‘The Wall’ by its 300 Native American residents,” he wrote. “Then, I captured their stories: how they came to be at this homeless camp, what their days were like, and what their hopes for the future beyond this camp were.”
For his most recent project, Ferdig traveled to Los Angeles to film a documentary about homelessness. “Skid Row L.A. — Worse Than I Thought” was posted on July 7.
Much of Ferdig’s work can be accessed through his website: ThePeriphery.com. He calls his site “A media devoted to stories that bring into focus that which we ordinarily miss — through interviews, with analysis, and by taking action.”
Brandon also has started a nonprofit called The Periphery Foundation, which gives proceeds from his stories back to the people featured and issues addressed in them.
“It helps people like Arkansas Bill, who was living without electricity,” Ferdig said.