It would be the height of hubris for any photographer who has carried a camera into a subway car, intent upon documenting any aspect of life there, to fail to acknowledge their debt to Walker Evans and Bruce Davidson. Similarly, I am indebted to the subjects of my work, whose participation never was requested, or conciously offered.
Thomas Wolfe, the 20th century writer who warned us that we can't "go home again," wrote at one point in his sadly short existence that "the whole conviction of (his) life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”
The reality of Wolf's observation ironically may be best observed in the midst of a crowd, for nowhere do individuals often seem more isolated, seem to appear more lonely than they do when surrounded by their fellow human beings.
For the past nine years I have been documenting this phenomenon in the subway cars of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority - the MBTA, where every day tens of thousands of riders, of all ages, races, and social strata, are packed in, Alone, Together.
When I began photographing on the subway, I had no preconceived idea of what I was doing; I simply wanted to make compelling images. Yet the longer I've photographed my fellow "T" riders, the more the concept of isolation in a crowd has taken over the work. Individually, in twos and threes, and even in larger groups, those crammed into often distressingly close proximity to complete strangers seem unaware of the presence of others. Some of this undoubtedly has to do with the wearing of headphones, the focus on reading materials, or simply the need to doze at the too-early beginning, or late ending of a demanding day. I have to wonder, however, whether absorption in books, with iDevices, newspapers, or napping, isolates individuals unintentionally, or are these points of focus walls behind which people quite knowingly barricade themselves?
Perhaps the answer to that chicken and egg conundrum may be found in the behavior of couples, who though they have connectedness, are in that connectedness as isolated as any individual, seemingly oblivious to those around them who can watch what they are doing, hear what they are saying, and marvel at the egocentricity of it.
Almost everyone to whom I have previously shown parts of this project has asked whether people object to my photographing them, has asked whether I request permission to make these strangers my subjects. And always I say that they don't, and neither do I. For to object, they would have to acknowledge my presence - beyond looking in my direction - and for me to ask, I would have to engage with them. And then neither they nor I would be Alone, Together.
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B. D. Colen
About The Photographer
B. D. Colen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter, editor, and columnist who spent 26 years at The Washington Post and Newsday, covering medicine, health care, and health policy for 17 of those years. A photographer for more than 50 years, Colen began his professional photography career in 1963, covering the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for a weekly newspaper in Connecticut.