The 'Subwayhands' Photo Series Captures the Complicated Emotions of Transit

Photographer Hannah Ryan is on a mission to capture the intimacy and awkwardness of the subway, one hand at a time.

by Peter Slattery
Jan 7 2017, 1:05pm

Photos : Hannah Ryan

Sometimes, riding the subway in New York City can be good. Maybe your train arrives just as you step on the platform, you hear some good music from a busker, and, despite the hustle and bustle of the clanking train, you find a moment for peaceful meditation. Other times your train never comes, you’re late for work, you’re sitting squished between two manspreaders, and you begin to wish those rats you saw on the train tracks earlier would come into your compartment and gnaw you to death.

In her own original way, 26-year-old photographer Hannah Ryan captures these disparate moments in the lives of commuters with her unique subwayhands Instagram account. For the past year, Ryan has chronicled hundreds of subway rider’s hands, snapping photos with her phone of the interesting hands that she sees during her commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back again.

“I’ve always noticed people's body language and behavior on the subway,” Ryan told The Creators Project. “Subway rides bookend our days in New York, and people react to that intimacy on a spectrum of extreme comfort (man-spreading, flossing) to acute discomfort (like the self-consciousness of being in a crowded elevator). I started to see how people’s body language was centralized in their hands. Sometimes their gestures hint at mood or inner experience.”

Viewed as a photographic archive, subwayhands quirkily catalogs a bunch of the weird shit people do on the subway, which apparently includes writing notes, holding phones, eating hot dogs, fidgeting, praying, holding hands with animals, and so much more. Ryan wields her phone camera with impressive skill, snapping hands clutching, contorting, and resting from creative angles at precise moments of action.

But perhaps the most impressive part of Ryan’s photos are the range and depth of emotions that her snaps manage to convey. It might sound silly, but scrolling through the subwayhands feed can bring on a serious variety of feelings — you don’t have to be a hand partialist to see sadness, stress, love, exhaustion, determination, and sex emanating from these hands.

Ryan says the initial inspiration for the project was seeing a photo of Georgia O’Keeffe, taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz. “[O’Keeffe’s] hands take up most of the picture,” Ryan says. “Their pose is sensual and dramatic, more expressive than her face. Hands are weird. They operate reactively and on instinct. Mostly we let them do their own thing. I think they can be our most honest feature.”

At first, Ryan often got caught by passengers while taking photos, but she says she’s gotten pretty sneaky. When asked what she’s doing, she says she immediately contextualizes the project, “because it's freaky getting photographed on the subway without an explanation.”

“People are usually tolerant, sometimes intrigued or charmed. I've had a handful of unpleasant interactions but if you consider the fact that I'm doing this almost everyday they account for a small percentage. I've gotten quite shameless about talking to people on the subway, for better and worse.”

Ryan has begun selling prints of her shots, with purchasing information on her Instagram. See a few more selections from the “subwayhands” feed below:

You can check all of Hannah Ryan’s subway hands on her Instagram.

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