Nicole Javorsky is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
Photographer Patrick Wright carried his camera on the city’s rapid transit system for four years, taking photos of over a thousand riders.
Patrick Wright describes himself as shy. But, over the course of four years he faced his usual discomfort approaching strangers head-on and snapped photos of over a thousand passengers on Washington, D.C.’s Metro.
The riders’ willingness to be photographed surprised Wright, the creator of the new zine, SIDETRACKED (Slow Dance Press), which includes 45 images from the project taken between 2014 and 2018. Wright has been living in D.C. since 2006, and the zine is his first publication. He says this project is a natural evolution of his work because since he “got serious” about photography six years ago, he has been mainly interested in taking portraits of strangers. Previously, he photographed people at Union Station and along H Street Northeast.
For the Metro series, Wright uses light and shadow—along with the ubiquitous scenery of station platforms and rail cars—to frame passengers in a way that feels intimate and personal. The photographer recently spoke with CityLab about his experience.
What made photographing others feel particularly uncomfortable?
I was uncomfortable imposing on people even if it was someone I knew. A lot of people are a little uncomfortable being photographed, although I have found with this project, and just over the years photographing, maybe most people are somewhat comfortable. By nature, I'm kind of shy so definitely asking strangers was outside of my comfort zone. That fear took a long time to get past.
How did you start photographing people on the Metro?
I had done a few projects prior to this one. I photographed people at Union Station for a while and then I had photographed people on H Street Northeast. I had always felt it was a little strange to walk up to someone on the Metro and ask to take their photograph because everyone's kind of there in their space. They're doing their own thing. But a few times, someone on the Metro had really just caught my eye, like maybe the way the light was coming into the window and landing on the face looked really interesting.
When people get on the Metro to go to work or wherever, they're not really going out with the expectation that they're going to be photographed. In a way, that's more interesting to me than if I were to go to an event or a protest or something where I think people might be more expecting to be photographed. I think it's a little more interesting to get people when they're being themselves.
What did you learn once you got started photographing people on the Metro?
I learned that people are really receptive to being photographed on the Metro. I think part of that is they're kind of stuck there anyway. You're not holding someone up if you take their photo.
Tell me about some of your favorites from the project.
I'm always interested in people who are sleeping on the Metro, which is something I do quite a lot. It’s interesting to see how people invent ways to be more comfortable sleeping. Everyone has a different way of sleeping on the Metro. I kind of rest my head against the window, and get comfortable that way, which is a little bit risky, by the way, because sometimes someone on the platform would bang on the window to wake you up.
Did anything surprise you?
I’m someone who otherwise doesn’t talk to strangers. I'm not extroverted, but nevertheless I found that people responded well to this. I photographed over a thousand people on the Metro. No one really ever got upset when I asked to take the photograph. There were a few times people got upset when I didn't ask to take their photograph.
One thing that surprised me is that some people would email me months later and say, “Hey, you know you never posted the photo. Do you mind emailing it to me?” Someone emailed me and said, “The day that you took my photograph, that's the same day that I quit heroin and you know it'd be really meaningful to have that photo.”
Were you able to find those photos when people got in touch?
A lot of times people would say you probably don't remember me, but I was wearing a green sweater or whatever. Even though I photographed a lot of people, I can kind of remember instantaneously who they were and it's not too hard to find. Most people are surprised when I get back to them.
How did carrying a camera change the way you rode the Metro?
Part of the challenge of this project was trying to see the Metro differently every day. I find that bringing a camera with me on the Metro changes my commute. I just see more interesting things and more interesting people when I have a camera with me. After I wrapped up this project and stopped taking the camera with me, I feel like I just don't see as many interesting things or as many interesting people, although that's changing because I started bringing a camera with me again.