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.


Laughing

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


OTHER RESOURCES:

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

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Comments

comments

130 thoughts on “Subway Yearbook Photos

  1. 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.

      1. You guys do the same projects over and over again and just give them new names.

      2. Neil makes a good point, the last 7 out 12 missions have involved either the MP3 or No Pants missions. I was also getting tired of hearing about these as well, so it was good to see you have an original experiment.

    1. 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!

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

    2. 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!

  2. 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: http://crnphoto.zenfolio.com/6traincar9/h32b6102d#h32b6102d

    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.

  3. 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!)

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

    1. 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.

  6. 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!

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

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

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

  10. 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.

    1. Taking photos created a serious public safety hazard? I fail to see how.

    2. Google reveals that Lester here is the Senior Cheif Counsel (Lawyer) for the NYC MTA.

      So naturally, as “counsel” he is a party pooper and more than likely ultra-conservative about anyone having any fun with what would otherwise be a mundane, boring subway system.

    3. I agree this was very dangerous. The photo flash could have caused permanent blindness. In additional, if the person posing for the photo is repulsive looking, this can cause nausea and emotional scarring.

  11. 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.

    Bravo!

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

  13. You get the “power” of making smiling each and all!

    Wish you could come and do that in France too!

  14. Charlie Todd is getting old…as the time goes on…I can surely see it…

  15. I dunno. As a long-time admirer of I.E., and after loving years of your work that (spontaneously, albeit faux) added quality/interest to people’s lives, I’m not sure but what your time and come and gone and, that, well . . . you’ve stopped being art and are simply pranksters. SO sorry to say it . . . But that’s been my gut response to your last 3 missions. It was beautiful while it lasted . . .

  16. I would really like to see this actually published in some form. What a great idea!

  17. haha great job on this. what a nifty project. I’m sad i missed the oppty to be in on it. o.O

  18. Another great mission. Thanks folks. Disruptive Realism at its finest.

  19. New Yorkers are beautiful and I don’t even live there. The security of our world lies in how large cities maintain their humanity and civility amid diversity and resourcefulness. Congratulations on punctuating the happiness. The fringe needs that love.

  20. I think this was a great idea!!! I’m almost sad that it wasn’t real. You could tell that these people really wanted to be recorded along with their loved ones in something so official. They probably would have bought a few copies and sent them to relatives.
    You should actually put a book like that out. Call the mayor or the mta and maybe they’ll help pay for it.

  21. I love this mission! It brightened people’s day. They all had an interesting subway ride and a story to tell, along with happy smiles. I think this mission is like the High Five Escalator mission – did no harm and made a lot of people smile and have an out of the ordinary day. My favorite kind of mission!

  22. Hahahh… Charlie looks like Matt Damon in the Informant… ! Great job with the pics! Did you get quotes from everyone?! HAhaa… I still remember what my HS quote was.. :)

  23. I think that as long as we nurture the gentle, playful sense of humor and share in the fun loving nature of the human spirit…. we’re going to be okay. Thanks guys, for providing the playground.

  24. You guys rock. These pranks always make me smile. I think I used to work with Lester. Or his evil twin.

  25. At the risk of seriously insulting you, that’s a great look with the proto-stache, Mr. Todd.

  26. Thanks for lifting my spirits, again. I can always count on you.
    And Lester G. Freundlich, really?

  27. You need to do stuff in Seattle. New York isn’t the only city worth doing stuff in. There are plenty of shenanigans to be had here!
    -Angelica, 26
    Seattle, WA

  28. Just wanted to say that this is a great idea. Most New Yorkers, just like most people, are at heart, warm and generous folks who simply want to get on with their fellow man. You tapped into that, well done!

  29. Always loved to see positive things like this when I rode the subways. Great job. Will never forget a conductor on the 7 train at Willets point beginning with “attention all passengers” and everyone heaving the heavy sigh thinking we would be held up for 2 hours. He then proceeded to point out the sights and thank us for riding his train, and have a nice day. I told him how nice and unexpected that was. You do such fun, happy things. I hope someday to join you in one.

  30. Total kick-ass brilliance once again. Extremely simple concept requiring minimal people and equipment, yet executed with the legendary IE flair. Even the tacky shirts and mustache added something.

    If the MTA had any sense, they’d put you on the payroll!

  31. This was definitely great. New York is amazing. Thanks once again improve everywhere for your awesome-ness.

  32. Hey, don’t diss Pants and MP3 Experiments! That’s the only way people in other States can join in on the fun!

    Awesome mission, a classic Improv Everywhere staple of small, but memorable!

    Aren’t Yearbooks supposed to be organized alphabetically?

  33. Wow! This really put a smile on my face. I really, really miss NYC now.

  34. Thanks, Charlie. I’ve been needing an improveverywhere boost/dosage for a while now. Keep up the awesomeness.

  35. Haha you guys are awesome! I love you guys! I’ve been waiting for you all to come to my town and now you are coming to NC soon and I’m NOT THERE!!! Sucks! But keep up the good work, its always great to see people doing innosent things to make people wonder and laugh. I give you props for doing what you do.

  36. why’d you have to lie to these people and misrepresent yourselves? If you were simply looking to get a slice of NYC 6 train life, you can simply say that and people would still participate. It seems strange the need for such a guise – I’d imagine these people, upon finding out they’ll be on brazilian TV, and won’t be in some MTA yearbook might feel duped, in which case you’d likely undo the positive aspects this project obviously had.

  37. Ok, so I will never complain about the size of the stuido I have to work in ever again. Pretty cool and the photos came out great.

  38. Awesome. The first thing I thought of was what was mentioned above — “So did they have those little blue plastic combs to hand out?”

    That would have been the clincher. Everyone had one of those in his back pocket on picture day in the 3rd grade.

    I think you’ll have to break the ‘stache back out for another mission sometime. That was classic.

  39. This is lovely! It warms the cockles of my heart. This is my favorite type of Improv Everywhere mission — simply getting folks to smile.

  40. This is fabulous guys! Makes me really want there to be a yearbook! I’d buy it, and I don’t even live in NYC! :)

  41. Awww this is so cute! You can see that you really brightened some peoples day with this. Maybe the cheer will spread exponentially ushering in a new age of peace and love. Well, probably not that…but you did have a mood lifting impact and you can see how the thought of participating in a subway yearbook made the transport system a little less faceless and grim for people.

  42. I love it! Another great mission. But the wrinkled backdrop gave it away as fake to me! Nice detail with the phony forms. xo

  43. I love you guys!!
    I follow you from Argentina and think your are great!
    If I ever go to USA I´ll participate in one of your missions!!!
    Congrats!

    You have a fan here!!!!

  44. This is why I’m proud to be a New Yorker, so much diversity. Everyone looked so friendly I loved this mission.

  45. Definitely smile-inducing, in the best way possible. I get uncomfortable watching people be made fun of behind their backs. I didn’t feel that way at all here. I saw such humanity — people connecting with one another, revealing themselves (so to speak) for the camera, and having fun…all on a routine subway ride. I hope their smiles stayed with them the rest of the day. Good job!

  46. Get a grip. No one was forced to take their picture. Set up was at end of car, not blocking exits or impeding the flow of movement. How “safe” are the trains when they are packed at rush hour? Bogus form – okay – I understand the legal issues there, however, I think they would have gotten the same participation had they presented themselves as photographers working on a pictorial book/collection/essay regarding the cultural diversity of NYC residents or something similar.

    I would have enjoyed watching the show. I’ve had many boring trips on the trains – would have welcomed the entertainment – better than staring at the people across from you.

  47. This is SOOOOO cool. Love the idea of making people smile and have fun. I’ll bet you made everyone’s day so much brighter!

  48. hmmm
    Strobist info: SB-X00 bounce off celling, another 2 SB-X00 clamp on subway handrail with shoot through unbrella behind camera left and right. Blue blackdrop behind justin clamp on subway handrail?

    Good job!!!

  49. IE..just love your style!…..it’s never mean spirited and your bits are always original!
    Leno would love you all… he should have you on!
    I’m a big fan.

  50. Thank you so much for the psychological injection of “feel good.” It was awesome!

  51. Thanks for taking such a simple idea and running with it. The smiles you brought to all those faces really made my day. Who knew the subway could be so much fun!

  52. Yay for IE! I am always raised by the antics of this organization. Thanks a bunch.

  53. OMG!!!!!!!!! DAVE LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE MY GEOGRAPHY TEACHER!!!!!!!!!!

  54. This is why an Iowa born Ohio girl loves to visit her daughter in Manhattan! I understand that riding the subway can be not good for a number of reasons when you HAVE to, every day, but I absolutely love it. It so “smacks you in the face” with humanity and I find most of the amazingly diverse people to be wonderful and beautiful. The innocense and joy of this project really made my day. Thank you!

  55. I LOVE THIS IDEA! I recently was handed the advisership for our High School Yearbook…. I think that as a way to get more kids covered in our annual, I will employ a similar task! Perhaps we will pretned we are just learning how to shoot portraits (which won’t be an actual mistruth at all).
    Cool, my wheels are spinning. Thanks to my Herff Jones rep for the link to this page!
    Happy Shooting ya’ll!

  56. LOVE IT! That looked like TONS of fun! I would love to do something like that on our Sound Transit Link Light Rail train here in Seattle! Congratulations for the success!

  57. This is glorious! Someone should do this on the London Underground and project the photos all over the HQ of the British National Party (extremist bunch of right-wing hooligans) just to show them what “Britain” really means. Inspirational and beautiful work, thank you Charlie, thank you Chad!

  58. AWESOME. just awesome.

    spend a day or two doing that all over NY and what an amazing book that would really make!

  59. that’s a beautiful idea! great you guys actually went out and DID it instead of just thinking it and letting it go. :) xxx

  60. you guys have so much fun–i wish i could live in nyc—everytime i vis i always find the people there really great people–a lot with terrific senses of humor.

  61. You guys are fantastic! This was such a neat project and, having just visited NYC for the first time two weeks ago (and taking the 6 I might add), I enjoyed it even more. As a tourist I did not find New Yorkers ‘gruff’ and cold at all. That is definitely evident in this project. :o)

    Great job guys.

  62. Haha, how much you want to bet that that woman who refused to take her picture and hid her face from everyone was either A)Running from the law or B)under the witness protection program or something of the sort. I’m just confused about why she stood right next to the backdrip. Are NYC subways that crowded?

  63. Besides this being funny, what you said about taking pictures about the diversity on the train is a really cool idea

  64. I wonder if you had NOT said you from the MTA and were just offering free portraits to people what the reaction would have been? Saying you were from the MTA seems little deceptive. I did a portrait project in a public place once using a polaroid camera and just gave the people their photos, they really appreciated it and told me what they would do with the photos (send to loved ones, etc). Some people were worried about their legal status at first but I told them that there was only one photo and they were getting it! People who hadn’t had a family picture taken were really happy. I like your overall idea about capturing the diversity of the NYC subway. It is a truly unique place. Great idea and I love photos!

  65. Hey uh… I’ve worked in a couple photography studios and movie sets in my time and aren’t those umbrella reflectors…backwards? That is, I thought the open end should be facing towards the subject.

  66. If you guys ever come to Pensacola, FL, I totally want to be in on it. Except for the no-pants thing, all your work is Fantastic!

  67. Did you guys get any feedback from those who found out that they were part of the mission?

  68. I loved this, but I think it was especially awesome for that family. Those photos are lovely, whether they were on a train or not, and it’s always awesome when you have beautiful pictures of your children. (And that baby is adorable.) :D Great job, guys!

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