Hannah La Follette Ryan tells New Yorkers’ stories with “10 digits or less.”
Ryan’s Instagram account, Subway Hands (@subwayhands), is exactly that: photos of city commuters’ hands as they ride the subway. The images reveal sometimes intimate details about her subjects while revealing very little physically. The subjects are also captured during the daily grind of commuting — a time when New Yorkers are often most reserved or closed off to their surroundings.
“I think a lot of New Yorkers feel like they’ve got to have this mask as they walk around the city and keep in their zones,” Ryan said. “But when you’re sitting on a train — often a delayed train — your hands are kind of left to their own devices. And they end up doing things that are often, I think, pretty true to how you’re feeling.”
Ryan, 27, a nanny from Amherst, Massachusetts, who moonlights as a photographer, started taking photos of commuter’s hands when she moved to the city in 2015. Her account now has more than 18,000 followers.
“It definitely started from being on the train, being new to New York and just being fascinated by that space and noticing how you see so many different kinds of people and so many different energies on a train car,” said Ryan, who lives in Crown Heights. “I remember looking at other people on the train and just being so curious about their lives. And I was kind of people-watching, I noticed how people’s hands were so expressive and how you could see a lot of anxiety — there’s just so much movement to people’s hands on the subway.”
There are certain characters that tend to reappear on Ryan’s feed: the germaphobes clutching tissues; the riders with very odd grips on subway poles and the lovers with hands draped over each other as they’re seated. Making her way down a 1 train car, Ryan showed a shot she had taken of a man’s hand, relaxed and draped between his legs in a way that mimicked the trench coat he was wearing.
Ryan can be found typically working the Seventh Avenue or Eighth Avenue lines, which she herself commutes on. She’s gotten better at going unnoticed while shooting, she said. But she’s been screamed at, and has had to explain her project to puzzled commuters who have caught her slipping from one subway car to the next at each train stop, pausing to take quick snaps on her phone. Traveling companions also know not to expect long conversation with Ryan on the train.
“Whenever I’m on the train and I’m with my friends there’s just an agreement — that they know I’m going to go Subway Hands,” she said. “So I’m used to just walking onto the train with someone and they’ll just sit down while I walk through. It’s just an instinct.”
Thanks to the nature of her job, Ryan is commuting at varying hours of the day on different lines. She is objective in her search for the most expressive hands, but she does have a few preferences. It’s challenging to move through the crush of commuters during rush hour — but just before or after peak commuting times generally offers the right balance of riders and space to work. And newer subway car models, like the R142 of the 2 line, provide more generous lighting for her iPhone.
Subway Hands first started as more of an anthropological study to photograph every New Yorkers’ hands. Ryan said she had been inspired, in part, by the work of photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his work shooting the hands of Georgie O’Keefe. Back then, when she first started, Ryan had identified herself to her subjects each time.
“When I did approach people to ask if I could take a picture of their hands, it would take a while to reassure them that it wasn’t a fetish or something weird — but then their hands would react to me and they’d lose that pose,” Ryan said. “I would say, could you just do what you’re doing with your hands? And they’d be like, ‘What? I have no idea.’”
“And that’s the beauty of it,” she continued. “Your hands just reacting and responding to what you’re thinking about and your surroundings. And that’s what I’m trying to photograph. That honest expression.”