The 'Subway Hands' Instagram Explores Our Strange Fascination with People Eating on the Train

"Eating on the subway requires a blend of self-sufficiency and shamelessness that I truly respect."

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Aug 1 2018, 7:15pm

All photos courtesy of Hannah La Follette Ryan.

People-watching is, perhaps, New York City commuters’ number one shared pastime. Colorful expressions of humanity abound on the trains and buses of the five boroughs, inspiring many an artist to try to capture the many and varied hues of life in a shared moment in transit. Hannah Ryan, a 28 year-old nanny by day but photographer by passion, is another in a long line of artists trying to grab a hold of the ephemeral nature of life in the city. Over the last three years of her commutes across the city, she started a photography project called Subway Hands, an Instagram account with over 40,000 followers documenting a collection of hands that happened to catch her eye.

Sometimes the hands appear posed in a moment of contemplation, sometimes in a moment of amorousness with another set of hands, and sometimes just serving as a metaphor for simply getting by in the city—grappling for space on a crowded center pole during rush hour, carrying overflowing bags of groceries, or peeling a banana for a hurried breakfast in transit. It’s no surprise, then, that a lot of Ryan’s images feature subway riders eating or holding food. Like the other small acts of respite we give ourselves on public transportation (a quick cat nap between stops, a bit of music to drown out the hustle), food is always there, no matter what the MTA’s signage tells us. We talked with Ryan a bit about her project, what her opinion is of odorous foods on the train, and asked her to curate a collection of her favorite subway-hands-holding-food images that illustrate this small facet of life in the city.

MUNCHIES: Tell me about yourself. What’s your background and your day job?
HANNAH RYAN: I’m a nanny-hyphenate-photographer from Amherst, MA. I’m 28 years old. I went to college in upstate New York and moved to NYC after graduation, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. My job has me on the trains all the time. I live in Brooklyn and work all over Manhattan (for several families). The bulk of the Subway Hands photos are taken on my commute.


Trying to capture NYC in one frame or one drawing is like holding water—it slips through your fingers.

What were your goals for this project? What were you originally looking for in the image, or looking to accomplish?
I started Subway Hands within a month of moving to the city, now three years ago. I admire the mission of street photography and draw a lot of my inspiration from it. Subway Hands is similarly trying to illustrate city life, with a different approach. The artist Jason Polan has a project where he’s attempting to sketch every person in New York. That desire really resonates with me. Trying to capture NYC in one frame or one drawing is like holding water—it slips through your fingers. I like the idea that maybe one day you could make a mosaic of my photos and get a larger and more complete image of New York.

What draws your eye as a photographer?
Light, color, gesture, emotion, geometry. The usual suspects.

Because you don’t show any faces, [the viewer comes] to a lot of assumptions about gender in the images you make. Is that something you’re conscious of, or something that you find striking about the objects people are holding—that they in some way convey parts of people's identities even without showing their faces?
Yes, I think of the photos as portraits. In an Art History class in college I saw these elegant photos of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands taken by her partner Alfred Stieglitz. In one, her face is visible, but her hands convey the emotion and dominate the picture. That photo was an early inspiration for Subway Hands and changed the way I understand portraiture. I regularly think about it when I’m shooting.

Do people ever get upset if they notice you photographing them?
It’s been a while but it happens. I like to think I’m sneakier than I am. Getting photographed in a big city without context has become a hostile experience, which is understandable and unfortunate. The people that get angry assume you’ve photographed their face. Explaining the project defuses the situation.

I passionately believe good reasons to eat on the subway exist, but it will always be controversial. New Yorkers are at their breaking point with the MTA and in general seem more likely to take fragrant vinaigrette personally.

As someone who does a lot of up-close observing of people mid-commute, what are some things you’ve learned, themes you’ve come across, or habits you notice people have?
When I’m loitering to take a photo and accidentally catch someone’s eye, the first thing they do is reposition their hands.

Why is food on the subway such a polarizing concept? Do you have an opinion on eating in the subway? What draws your attention to food in people’s hands as opposed to other images you made without food in them?
Eating on the subway requires a blend of self-sufficiency and shamelessness that I truly respect. As a mobile and impatient person, I snack on the train occasionally. I vividly remember getting scolded for eating a bagel by a man reading the Financial Times. He told me what I was doing was illegal! Seeing someone eating on the subway automatically piques my interest. I’m intensely curious about the backstory (low blood sugar?). My favorite subway food occurrence is breakfast. There’s something endearing about people eating breakfast on the go. I passionately believe good reasons to eat on the subway exist, but it will always be controversial. New Yorkers are at their breaking point with the MTA and in general seem more likely to take fragrant vinaigrette personally.