Reading & Riding New York’s Underground
Every day, approximately seven million people journey through the underworld of New York City’s subway system. Along their daily commutes, some passengers stare into space, rock out on headphones, or sleep. But a special group of riders simultaneously embark on a different kind of journey — through the books they read. Ourit Ben-Haim, New Yorker and self-proclaimed street photographer, has been documenting these “Reading-Riders” since December 2011 on The Underground New York Public Library.
What inspired you to begin the UNYPL?
The first time I photographed a subway reader, I did it just out of photographic instincts. After that I felt compelled to do it again, and the photographs I collected inspired me to build a visual library. Concentrating on the Reading-Riders led me to discover layers of meaning in their presence and activity. In time I resolved to create an extensive series, in revelation, preservation, and celebration of them.
Did you grow up riding the subway?
I didn’t use the subway as a means for my daily life growing up. But it was there, nearby, and when I was old enough I would use it to reach a world that was different than my own. I’m from a religious community in Queens, and they are great people with their own specific world. The subway, just like literature, connected me to what was outside of that world.
Many people ride the subway, but you post just a handful of images.
I work with what my time spent shooting yields. I don’t have control over what I’ll chance upon, and that’s something I enjoy about this kind of photography. It’s exciting to see what will come my way. At the same time, we see what we look for, and there is both an artistic and social design that I look for in my images.
Do you ever talk to the Reading-Riders you photograph? Or do most not notice because they’re so engrossed in their stories?
I’m often in conversation about what I’m doing. Even if the reader doesn’t notice me, other people around me do. Various situations happen frequently enough, so I can’t tell if it happens more when they notice me or when they don’t. It does happen that the Reader will look up from their book after I take the shot. Then I tell them that I took their picture and I explain why.
Describe a notable experience you’ve had while shooting UNYPL images.
Every time I take a candid picture, I impose a strange moment on those who see it happening. My best experiences are when people reconsider the strangeness of it. Sometimes this happens in the moment, via an exchange of facial expressions. It also happened recently in another way. I received the e-mail that I’ve been dreading. A Reading-Rider wanted me to remove his picture from the library. I wrote back to him and told him that I’d remove it and that it must have felt so strange to discover a picture of himself in this way. He responded right away and said that he changed his mind, that he reconsidered once he got over the shock of it. He said he thinks the library is very cool, that it reminds him of his favorite subway graffiti books from the 70s and 80s, and that I may keep his picture on there.
What are your thoughts on reading and writing, philosophically?
Photographically speaking, the subway works well as context for a series on reading. The constant backdrop is one of journey and destination, and this connects to my philosophy on reading and riding. I see life as a journey towards ourselves, and reading is a primary vehicle towards this destination. While our daily affairs may distract us, reading en route is an act of remembrance that counters whatever we’ll soon become busy with.
What does a book say about its reader?
To read is to be willing to engage ourselves towards discovery. Reading any book demonstrates this willingness. When I see the Reading-Riders, I see people who are contemplating description of new possibilities. In this way, every book says that its reader is simply great.
You must have a favorite subway line.
My vision for the underground library is a holistic one, and I work towards that by bringing together images from many different lines. I don’t have a favorite line in a general sense. I’ve come to appreciate whatever it is that’s unique about the lines I know. I’ll give a shout out to the R train, though. It feels like I could have found all of the characters that I’ve photographed for the library on that line; it seems to carry everyone.
What are you currently reading when you ride?
I take pictures when I ride! I look forward to reading again on the subway once the library is complete. Recently, a Reading-Rider inspired me to pick up The Color of Water by James McBride, which I’m reading now.
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