Interview with @subwayhands

Hannah La Follette Ryan is the New York based photographer behind @subwayhands, a viral Instagram account which showcases portraits of strangers’ hands on the subway and boasts over 250 thousand followers. Poetry board member Ezra Lebovitz and design board member Anna Correll spoke with her via email this January about her work, her method, and the rules of subway decorum.

AC: What led you to start looking at people’s hands?

HLFR: Chronic people watching. Hands can reveal as much about a person as a face. Hands mediate our relationship with the world and each other. Our gestures and mannerisms capture our moods and illustrate our inner life.

EL: If you could change one thing about the subway, what would it be?

HLFR: I would nationalize public transportation and make it free.

AC: What’s something that’s been bothering you lately?

HLFR: Governor Cuomo.

AC: When do you feel most comfortable?

HLFR: Drinking tea in my studio when it’s raining.

EL: What is it like using an iPhone for these photos, as opposed to a traditional camera?

HLFR: By shooting on an iPhone I’m able to be mostly invisible to my subjects, ideal conditions for “street photography.” I blend in with the masses texting and scrolling. You have to get stealthy shooting in an intimate and enclosed space like the subway. Walker Evans photographed subway passengers with a camera hidden under his coat and the shutter release cable up his sleeve. Helen Levitt rode the trains with a right angle viewfinder so she could sneak photos without being noticed. My project captures the expressivity and naturalism of hands- in order to do that I have to be a fly on the wall.

AC: How do you negotiate other people’s personal boundaries when taking pictures? Is it any less invasive to take pictures of a person’s hands than of their face?

HLFR: Photographing hands is less confrontational than photographing faces. I find it doesn’t distress people sensitive to their photo being taken in the same way. It starts a conversation- “why did you take a photo of my hands” as opposed to “how dare you!”

EL: Do you have a band or an artist that you like to listen to on the subway?

HLFR: Movie soundtracks. Lately the first Blade Runner and the new Pride and Prejudice.

EL: What foods are and are not okay to eat on public transit?

HLFR: I’m always hungry and on the move so I have empathy and understanding for people who eat on public transportation. Eating on the subway is usually a last resort, it’s no one’s first choice. Someone yelled at me for eating a bagel on the train when I first moved to New York. Bagels shouldn’t be a controversial subway snack. It is not okay to eat rotisserie chickens on the subway, I’ve seen that one too many times.

EL: What’s your favorite line on the subway? Your favorite station?

HLFR: My favorite line is the 1 train which is painfully slow, but wonderfully old school and goes above ground at 125th street. My favorite station is probably the 49th Street N/Q/R/W station designed by Philip Johnson in the 1970s.

AC: What’s the most bizarre thing that has happened to you on the subway?

HLFR: I’ve run into the same celebrity, Ansel Elgort, on three separate occasions (and counting).

AC: What do you daydream about?

HLFR: Celebrities I want to photograph

AC: What would you fill your time with if you weren’t running @subwayhands?

HLFR: I would read a lot more books! Before I started this project I was a big subway reader, but now that time is spent photographing strangers’ hands.