THE ART OF BEING OBSERVED

THE ART OF BEING OBSERVED

Bumping shoulders with strangers is a given on the Toronto Transit System, as anyone whose taken it will know. With a daily ridership of 1.58 million – until recently – there is a constant flow of people in and out of the subway doors. When I take the TTC, I sometimes catch myself thinking of all the people around me and how I will never know the true extent of their lives. Perhaps this is why I so greatly enjoy the Instagram account @subwayhands, an account that documents strangers’ hands on the New York subway system. Run by Hannah La Follette Ryan – who has been posting since 2015 – this account provides snapshots of the personal lives of New Yorkers by taking simple photos of their hands. With 225k followers, there is something about these photos that has garnered the attention of many on Instagram.

The majority of us access photography through Instagram, the app which has become a staple in our lives. You no longer need a fancy camera and a gallery to reach your audience. With just the click of a button on your phone, you can get a shot of anything and share it with your community. This makes it much easier to get candid shots wherever you are, as the process is quick and surreptitious. La Follette Ryan takes advantage of this by utilizing her iPhone to spontaneously capture moments on her subway rides. With so many people taking the subway at any given time, the Instagram page founder has a wealth of material to work with.

So why hands? In an interview with SLEEK magazine, La Follette Ryan said that “our hands can telegraph our mood in ways we don’t pay attention to.” To her, they prove “more accessible than faces.” Her account now has an extensive catalogue of these unconscious, individual moments that spark a connection through their simultaneous intimacy and mystery. We may not be able to see the face of the commuter, but we get to know them in some capacity – whether they have taken up boxing as a hobby, are rushing to take medication, or are currently in love (all pictured throughout). Since the focus is only on the hands of the subway riders, viewers are forced to fill in the blanks about the attached person based on their visible idiosyncrasies. 

I doubt any commuter would say that the subway is an extraordinary experience, much less an intimate space. However, it seems to provide endless inspiration to numerous people in their everyday lives. La Follette Ryan has put into words what makes the subway such a unique space to capture – to paraphrase, the combination of a rider’s familiarity from everyday commutes combined with a remaining guardedness around strangers creates intriguing scenes. Most of us are just focused on ourselves during the ride, and so many of these moments escape us. By following @subwayhands, we can see all of these scenes, from nervous ticks to handholding, laid out before us. These small windows into the lives of others are addicting to look at, providing an instantaneous connection seemingly inaccessible when you are actually riding the subway. 

In the hustle and bustle of city life, it is easy to find oneself feeling isolated. Despite the vast number of people moving throughout cities day to day, our own personal circles are often comparatively quite small. While this is not a bad thing by any means, living in a city can make you feel as though you are constantly missing out on relationships. Paradoxically, the sheer number of people you pass by daily may make you feel like you are not meeting enough people. Maybe this is why accounts like @subwayhands are so appealing, as they allow us to feel that connection to strangers that in our otherwise fast-paced lives we would never notice. It provides the chance to know another person, no matter how marginally.

Social media, in addition to city life, can leave us wanting for more personal connections. It often acts as a substitute for human contact in our lives, making us feel like we are connected to all the people we follow even if we’ve never even held a conversation with them. Scrolling through your Instagram feed, it seems as though everyone you know is a social butterfly, making you feel inadequate. It can at times be isolating. Despite providing a superficial feeling of community, when we return to the real world many of us hardly live the glamorous lives we choose to portray. Ironically, the account @subwayhands is accessed on Instagram. As I see it, this represents the duality of social media. While it has the ability to isolate you, it can also connect you to your surroundings in unexpected ways.

What sets @subwayhands apart from the numerous daily interactions we have with other people? To me, it is the intimacy created by the candidness of the photos. In face-to-face interactions, you lose the position of observer, instead adhering to social cues and roles determined by your relationship to the person. When we are not talking to others, we have been taught to be polite and keep to ourselves. We are so caught up in our own thoughts that people-watching isn’t at the forefront of our minds, and no one wants to be caught staring. Thus, @subwayhands provides a unique opportunity to assume the position of the observer, unimpeded. We get to glimpse people with an honesty that is often elusive.

Not to overstress the sentiment, but humans truly are social creatures – we thrive off of our interactions with people. I still remember random moments with strangers who I’ll never see again, as I’m sure many do. It is implicitly human to seek a connection with others, no matter how small. This is what makes @subwayhands so compelling. So, next time you ride the subway, try looking through La Follette Ryan’s viewfinder and you may be surprised by all the lives unfolding around you. 

HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Farida Zaman (OCAD University)
ALL OTHER IMAGES: @subwayhands on Instagram

 

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