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Captured in Transit

New York based photographer Jackie Neale is about to drop her exceptional #SubwaySeries book – a voyeuristic exploration of New Yorkers in transit whilst on their iconic subway network.

Flint recently caught up with Jackie to discuss the project, people and the future of photography.

Tell us about how you came to the idea of Subway Series?

For this project, I wanted to weave together a visual representation of contemporary realities as we evolve and adapt to modern technologies. New York City, the subway specifically, is a surprisingly magnificent place to feel alone, yet to remain completely surrounded by hundreds of people day in, day out, any time of day or night, all at once. I intended to capture and amplify the sense of anonymity I/you feel in New York City. Most people move around, certain that no one knows them, and that no one is paying much attention to them. I, on the other hand, made it my business to pay attention for this project. What often happens when we are not self-conscious we become surprisingly genuine and honest, sometimes even serene. Those who have never lived in New York City would never guess the fast pace of the city affords moments like that. But those who live in it are thankful for it. To let go of the facade and be less self-conscious is something I think should be celebrated.

Historically, my work is highly influenced by photographer, Walker Evans. Walker Evans’ well know work, “Many Are Called: Subway Passengers,” is iconic and revolutionary in it’s concept and practice for its time in the twentieth century. Using photography to record moments expected to be in solitude. Walker Evans hid a camera in his overcoat, and fished a cable release through his sleeve. Evans took each picture without the passengers knowing. 

Its practice and concept are still revolutionary to this day, and for me, I am witnessing the unraveling of an expectation of solitude disappearing (the privilege/entitlement of such) as cameras become synonymous with “the self.” It is as common to have a camera, as it is to have a hand. By that, I mean to say, if you have a hand, it is likely you have a cellphone. If you have a cellphone, it is likely you have a camera. If you have a camera it is likely you will use it when something memorable appears with spontaneity. 

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What did you hope to accomplish by documenting people in transit?

Aside from learning how to pay more attention to the people around me, I hoped to learn more about myself as a photographer and abilities within the constraints of a lo-fi camera system. What came out of it was an amazing freedom from the need of technical perfection. But what I didn’t expect and most remarkable was meeting a small community of photographers shooting amazing photography under the hashtag: #subwayseries. There we very few when I started in 2012, but I now know of and follow some photographers I highly respect. It’s safe to say I would have never found them otherwise if it was not for this experiment. Two that were really influential in the beginning were @dangaba and @larsonharley.

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From looking at your photos, it seems as if when we are in transit we are lost in moments of innocence. Is this what you take away from your experience?

My take away from the experience is that human behaviour is revealing and fascinating, where and when we choose to do what we do; where and when we can let our guard down; how in this immense city we actually can pick up on cues of how our ride on the subway will go just by looking around the subway car. Keep in mind, for so many of us, we are in transit upwards of 45 minutes on each subway ride. That’s a long time to spend with another person who got on the train when you did and got off after you did. It’s a long time and many stops between to see how vibes change and ebb and flow from one stop to the next. It’s a phenomenon.

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What sort of interactions did you encounter with the subjects of this project?

Aside from genuine observation and enjoyment of sharing the NYC transit experience with these commuters, nothing. What I encountered was essentially my moment only. I do not know any of the people in the photographs, and aside from 3 of them I never saw any of them again. I have taken that exact set of subways every weekday at the same time for nearly 13 years. Doesn’t that say something quite profound about this way of life? I think so.

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You shot this project with an iPhone. Now mobile phones have decent cameras has this opened up more opportunities to capture “real” moments where the subject is totally unaware?

Great question, the essential catalyst that prompted the project was my disbelief that people had become desensitised to people holding their cellphones/cameras in their hands. It’s evidence of adaptation of the saturation of communication and recording devices (or pure exhaustion of caring about them). It’s an invasion, and a desensitising. 

There are many unwritten rules about how to navigate NYC. One of which is how passengers react to what happens on someone else’s handheld device, whether it be a call coming through, the sound of a texting conversation or the volume of a video game being played. When cellphones became ubiquitous those intrusive sounds were almost immediately accepted into the fold of a subway experience. It became another thing we all got used to and now must tolerate in NYC subways.

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But with that acceptance we forget all of the other potential uses of those devices; audio, video, and still photography recording. NYC commuters would rather choose to take offense to any of the above on a case by case basis than to remain vigilant and on guard of it all of the time. It’s a thin line between acceptance and tolerance, and even participation in it themselves.

Haven’t you noticed how each introduction of new technology is quickly accepted once everyone is a party to whatever it is and starts doing it? For example, I hated when every single person began texting me. Then I bought an iPhone and now it’s my preferred kind of immediate communication. At first it’s an intrusion, then it was a tool that we would rather not live without, so we tolerate more because of its benefit.

My point is, these candid moments are very real, and would not have otherwise been able to be captured if it were not the 2010’s. Who knows what is next, and if our current way to consume information and record information will be different just 10 years from now? 10 years ago, I just wanted a mobile phone, now I have a mobile computer, camera, phone, etc…

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Subway Series was published through crowd-funding, do you envisage this as the future of arts funding? 

I work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and arts funding means a whole separate thing than on the individual artist level of art funding. I doubt large arts organisations would turn to crowd-funding. But on an independent arts level, crowd-funding is a spectacular way to fund a project. It provides an avenue for artists to fund their work that is within their control, and provides a way for their fans to become personally involved in the artist’s actual success. I’d like to hug every single person who funded my project!

One last thought on the longevity of crowd-funding opportunities. It is only an opportunity if this type of funding remains to have low fees. Even though I drew up a comprehensive budget, “fees” was one line item I did not foresee before I began the fundraising campaign (the actual outlay of costs for fees through crowd source funding websites). Hatchfund.org was fee free for the artist, which was excellent. Rather, it was a double fee for the actual funders. I’ll admit it was hard to explain this to concerned funders.

Everyone approaches crowd-sourcing campaigns from a different angle. Being an artist is so incredibly personal to begin with, when you reach out personally to people in your social network for money, it is a little uncomfortable from the start. Trying to keep confidence and stamina while fundraising is so difficult as you go through the process of asking for contributions. Having to explain the fees made it that much harder. I imagine, crowd-sourced funding will remain as long as it is affordable for the artist and as long as there are artists that can remain confident through the whole process of asking for money.

Order a copy of #subwayseries here: www.subwayseries.info

A complete list of Jackies projects, exhibitions, awards, and past clients can be found at www.jackiephoto.com

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