Subway Yearbook Photos

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Produced by Charlie Todd and Matt Adams / music by Tyler Walker

For our latest mission, we installed a photography studio on a random subway car. We claimed that the MTA had hired us to take photos of every single person who rides the subway and that we’d be producing a yearbook at the end of the year. Most people were happy to pose for us, and the resulting photos show just how diverse New York subway riders can be. Enjoy the video first and then check out the mission report and photos below.

6 Train, Car 9 — September 6, 2009 — 3:30 PM

See this image in high resolution.

Digital Video: Agents Adams, Yoshida, Garofalo
Digital Photography: Agent Sokoler
Portrait Photography: Agent Nicholson

This mission was tons of fun for me personally, because it really reminded me of the early days of Improv Everywhere. Those first couple of years we did so many simple ideas on the subway all with the simple goal of making people laugh and smile. It’s great to work on projects with thousands of people, but it’s also fun to see what you can do with just a couple of folks and a few props.

Agents Nicholson, Duarte, Martini

We collaborated with local production company Hello World on this mission. They wanted to film us for a Brazillian TV show, so we invited them to be a part of team. The show’s hosts, Agents Duarte and Martini, played the role of the “ringers”– they’d blend in with the crowd on the train and hop up to get their photo taken to encourage others to do the same. One nice thing about working with Hello World is that they specialize in shooting video with the fancy new Canon DSLR cameras. Since the Canons looked like still cameras, no one would know they were filming.

Filming my intro

For our roles as the photographer and the photographer’s assistant, Agent Nicholson and I wanted to try to dress on the cheesy side, to emulate the yearbook photographers we remembered from high school. I shaved my beard and left a ridiculous mustache and paired it with a $7.99 short sleeve dress shirt I found on the K-Mart clearance rack. Agent Nicholson wore a matching blue shirt, matching khakis, and a sport coat.

Setting up

After getting organized we took to the 6 Train (clearly by now Improv Everywhere’s favorite train) and set up our studio. We clamped a blue backdrop sheet to the poles, and set up our stool, tripod, and flashes. We set up at the end of the car and did our best to not make things too cramped. Still, it was a comically small space for a photo studio.

Riders gawk as we set up

People enter at the first stop

Things got crowded pretty quickly

My main job as the photographer’s assistant was to inform everyone who entered the car about our project. We claimed that we had been hired by the MTA to make a 2009/2010 yearbook of the entire subway system. “Today we’re on car number 9 of the 6 train,” I said, “We’ll here all day, and we’ll move to car number 8 tomorrow. Then on to the next line. It’s a long process.” Making a complete yearbook is a pretty absurd idea if you really think about it– over 4.3 million people ride the subway each day in New York.


We weren’t sure how easy it would be to get people to sit for a photo. We were pleasantly surprised by how willing most people were to be a part of it. We ended up not really needing our “ringer” agents more than once or twice– the stool was almost always occupied.

Signing our bogus MTA form

We took down everyone’s email addresses after their photo and, as promised, emailed them a link to download their portrait. You can’t beat that free service!

As you would expect, the train ride was pretty bumpy. A few riders opted to hold Agent Nicholson’s hand as they walked over to the stool. Some held on to the nearby pole during their shot. We had to work hard to keep our umbrella flash stands and the tripod from falling over at every twist and turn, but it added to the absurdity of our studio.

Agent Nicholson snaps a photo of Agent Sokoler snapping a photo

I had a mirror on hand in case anyone needed it before posing. Agent Nicholson ended up gaff-taping his tripod to the pole.

It was fun watching people make the decision to participate. The guy above was amused by what we were doing but told me he definitely didn’t want to pose. After watching a few others do it, he changed his mind.

A more serious pose

While Agent Nicholson snapped away, I continued my job of recruiting new subjects. I couldn’t talk everyone into it but most everyone was polite and fun to talk to.

This woman was nice, but told me she was sure she didn’t want her photo taken. A moment later she was smiling as someone else posed, and then looked at me, shrugged, and sat down herself.

Checking the mirror

Once we reached 125th Street, we got out and rode the train back down town, repeating the mission a second time.

This woman’s reaction was great. She was definitely taken off guard by our studio.

But just a few minutes later, she came over and posed.

I noticed a woman on the other side of the car who was putting a little bit of makeup on. She hadn’t volunteered yet, but I could tell she was quietly preparing. I called her out on it, and she laughed and walked over to the stool.

Almost all of the people who did not want to participate were still able to let their guard down and listen to our pitch with a smile. The woman facing the door in the photo above was probably the only person we really failed to reach in any way. She walked directly to the door and faced away from us for several stops, doing her best to completely ignore us. Oh well.

Towards the end of our second ride, there was a family of five who posed for us.

It was exciting to get an infant in our yearbook!

As the train approached the last stop, Agent Nicholson and I posed for a few photos in our studio before taking it down.

It was a super fun afternoon. While conventional wisdom would have you believe that New Yorkers are cynical and gruff– we had no trouble finding lots of fun people willing to get on board with two lame looking dudes in cheap blue dress shirts. You can see the full set of Agent Nicholson’s portraits here.

I remember when I first moved to the city eight years ago, I was blown away by the diversity on the subway. You can be on a train car in Queens and look around to realize that every single rider has a unique ethnicity. It was fun to capture that diversity with these photos, and to also show how much in common we all have. We may have different backgrounds, but we’re all in the same damn yearbook!

Mission Accomplished


Many more photos in higher resolution:
Agent Sokoler’s Flickr Set
Agent Nicholson’s portraits

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130 Responses to Subway Yearbook Photos

  1. Neil says:

    Congratulations on finally doing something original. I was getting tired of only hearing about A) MP3 “experiments” or B) riding the subway without pants on.

  2. Baylink says:

    Did. You. Get. Model. Releases?

    Publish. The. Book.

    It’s gotta be a best seller…

    • Isaiah says:

      You don’t need model releases to shoot in a public place, including a subway car or platform. That includes children, policemen, and people who are actively telling you to stop taking a photo of them.

      FYI, tripods and light stands are disallowed by MTA bylaws, but the most they would do is tell you to stop.

      On the other hand, it’s a nice thing to do. I wonder if the “bogus form” would serve as a release?

      Great mission!

      • LegalReality says:

        More likely the “bogus form” would be classified as Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument, a New York State Penal Law felony. As to the tripods, they could just tell you to stop. They could also issue you a summons and – if they really don’t like you – seize your tripod as evidence of the violation.

        • Baylink says:

          I’m almost certain that the “Forged Instrument” law has to do with *negotiable* instruments, IE: forged checks, but I’m not going to shepardize it during dinner.

          My concern, though, pretty obviously, was “can they publish the book now” not “could they have gotten busted them”.

          I wanna buy the damn book… :-)

      • LC says:

        Actually you DO need to obtain releases for any and all persons involved in shoots and/or productions. Unless you are shooting for a news company (ABC, NBC, CNN) and the report is “news worthy” (ex: Building is on fire in Time Square and YOU are outside said bldg when news crew arrives and are questioned or are featured in the background). Anything other than that whether it be a “public” place or not needs permission to use a persons likeness or image. Now many productions get around actual releases by posting a blanket warning release at the production site but even that would be open to scrutiny in a court of law. (ex: you had a sign posted notifying persons of the filming BUT the person who you shot is blind and therefore could not see or read the sign…etc)

        Also, if you are using tripods, it’s my understanding that you need a permit issued from the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting. I would think that this shoot would have required such permits seeing they were shooting on an MTA train. Not to mention insurance for the production.

    • Jenny says:

      I totally agree, it would be great as a book! It wouldn’t be just an IE book, but truly a book about NYC. I never understood the diversity until I was actually on a train and looked around!

  3. Michael says:

    Very cool improv. That baby is super cute.

  4. haha Congratulations! That one was quite original and funny to think about too.

    We often think of pranks that would only work well with dozens of people. It’s good to be reminded that all you need to cause a scene is creativity.

    The portraits are pretty nice! (waiting for Agent Sokoler’s) My favorite so far:

    And would anyone know what’s the name of the Brazilian TV show they were filming for? Or the names of those involved in such show. (Agents Duarte and Matini’s full names, perhaps?) I’d like to know to see if I can get more information about when and where they will air it here.

  5. Javier says:

    Awesome! I sometimes hop on the train from far off in bklyn all the way up to northern Manhattan, just to amaze myself at the diversity -yet incredible equality- that our town regales us with… Fantastic mission! (the old school, nerd photographer look was also priceless!)

  6. tqe / Adam says:

    You guys are amazing — this is a fantastically creative idea that really does a great job of grabbing a slice of New York City–and what makes it so wonderful.

  7. Dan says:

    Thanks, simply beautiful, just love to see these smiles!

  8. Very nice! Great idea.
    I’m also glad this mission wasn’t ruined by Los Hombres Del Peso!

  9. Jason Eppink says:

    Love this! How did you keep track of which e-mail addresses belonged to which riders? In high school we had pieces of paper we handed to the photographers. Seems like it could have been quite the logistical nightmare!

    • Charlie Todd says:

      We just numbered every sheet and then cross-referenced it with the order of the photos.

    • Jaypoc says:

      I used to be a portrait photographer for one of the two big companies that did portraits on Long Island. Those cards had serial numbers on them, and when placed in the camera, the serial number and name would appear exposed on the film under each photo.

      Now I take photos for a local Radio Station and when we do large events (Easter Bunny photos/mascot photos) we have a similar method as I.E.. We write the image number from the camera next to their email address along with the number of exposures taken.

  10. Ayun says:

    Awesome! Everybody knew exactly what to do. I wish I’d been on that train.

  11. Holly says:

    Beautiful, silly, obviously created by folks completely head over heels with New York and New Yorkers. Improv at its best makes you embrace the City as playground with all the endless potential fun so many people could have together when we open our eyes and see each other. Say Cheese!

  12. beth says:

    This made me smile, thanks. Did anyone ask for their own little plastic comb??

  13. Jen says:

    What a wonderful, fun mission! Charlie, I have to say that I think the mustache is cute. Keep it! :D

    • Charlie Todd says:

      Haha – it only lasted about 6 hours.

      • Kay says:

        Nah, I’m glad mustache died. Without it you look like the kind of guy I’d be tongue-tied to meet on the street, and I’d just stand there and smile awkwardly. The mustache kinda scared me. There was something definitely sketchy about it. Between those two responses, I’d imagine you’d find the first more flattering.

  14. carrisa says:

    That was great! ^^

  15. Michael says:

    terrific job! I’m surprised you didn’t get nabbed by the MTA police, the always seem to hassle photographers.

  16. Lester G. Freundlich says:

    Do not do this again on the subway, unless you have official permission from the new York city Transit Authority. What you did without permission created a serious public safety hazard. In addition, you misrepresented yourselves as authorized by the MTA.

    All of the above is dangerous and naot good.

  17. Love it, again! (Mustache, not so much… ;))

  18. Scott G. says:

    I thought this was excellent. While I do agree that representing yourselves as associated with the MTA might cause some potential legal issues, I disagree with the idea that there was a safety hazard. The portraits themselves are awesome – for a random (well, quasi-self-selected) cross-section of Train 6 travelers, you got some mighty photogenic subjects. All of them – guys and gals – come across with great character.


  19. Clickbank Product Reviews says:

    I really enjoy every one of this “missions”. They always make me smile, they are usually so innocent.

  20. James says:

    Nice Mustache!