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.
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.
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!