Ten Years of Photographing Strangers on the T (Boston Magazine)

Photo of two people in a laundromat facing away from each other.

Students in B. D. Colen’s course 21W.749 Documentary Photography and Photojournalism: Still Images of a World in Motion learn to see the world clearly and tell stories with photographs. This laundromat, from a student project, seems to share the same “alone, together” social order found in the Boston subway system. (Photo courtesy of MIT student.)

“Alone, together.” It’s become common wisdom that technology like smartphones and iPods are driving us apart, that we’re losing human interaction in public spaces.

But maybe it’s not really about the technologies, and also not really such a new thing—rather it could be something more fundamental to human nature. In his project “Alone, Together,” MIT’s B. D. Colen, who teaches photography and science journalism, shows how Boston subway riders were plenty willing to act this way with older, purely analog means.

Last week, Boston Magazine published an interview and photo feature about this project, “concerns with the current state of street photography, and issues of privacy in the golden age of surveillance.”

You started shooting this project in 2005, before the advent of iPhones, Twitter, and Kindles. Did you see people isolating themselves more intensely or more frequently as technology proliferated over the past decade?

On the T [Boston’s subway system], I don’t think so, because people would either have Walkmans or books or newspapers or magazines beforehand. They were just as isolated when I started doing this, as I saw it. It was print initially, and then the electronic devices took over.

If you go back and look at the first subway project of Walker Evans—he had a camera sewn inside his coat and was surreptitiously shooting people—they look just as isolated as my T riders do. I’m not comparing myself to Walker Evans, but he sort of saw the same thing. It’s not like people sat down and chatted with the people next to them. They were just sort of in their own world.

Read the complete story >

B. D. Colen’s OCW course 21W.749 Documentary Photography and Photojournalism: Still Images of a World in Motion is all about these topics. The class emphasizes “thinking about why people photograph, what photographs do and do not mean to us, and on doing documentary work, on telling stories with photographs.”  The OCW site includes several student projects, including one called “The Lost Sock – Lonely Laundromat” that finds laundromats share common social ground with the subway.

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