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24 Hours Underground

Michael Snyder | Pennsylvania, United States

1.07pm (Michael O. Snyder)

24 Hours Underground is a street documentary project shot entirely within one day in February on the Philadelphia subway system. It is an exploration of transitional space as a destination itself and a quest for flashes of the individual among the nameless.

The project was conceived, edited and compiled by Michael O. Snyder and shot in collaboration with photographer, Travis James

I’ve always loved subway systems. I love the intricate maps, the complex symbols, the design of the stations, and the rituals of travel. But I especially love the idea that, for a brief period of time, we suspend our notions of personal space and willingly squeeze into tiny compartments with complete strangers. And I love that all of this happens underground, an alien place that most of us only visit for two reasons: to ride trains and to be buried.

It is perhaps no wonder that we think of the underground as a transitional space, a place that we would rather pass through quickly and be out of again. I began to imagine what it would be like to enter the subway with the intention of staying there, to experience the transitional space as a destination in itself. After doing some research I discovered that SEPTA, the public transit system of Philadelphia, operates a 24-hour service on select lines over the weekends. In fact, Philadelphia is one of the only cities in the US (and, indeed, the world) to do so. So I invited my good friend and fellow photographer, Travis James, to the City of Brotherly Love to document 24 hours underground with me.

We entered City Hall Subway Station 9am on a Saturday in February, bringing with us only the following items: several bags of nuts and raisins, three bananas, four bottles of water, two sandwiches and a pair of cameras equipped with 50 millimeter lenses. We switched our phones over to airplane mode, made a final trip to the bathroom, purchased our tickets for $2.25 and descended below.

With no “where” to go, as it were, we established a routine of semi-intentional wandering: jumping on a train at one station, riding for a few stops and then hopping off again. As we made our laps through the urban subspace, we witnessed a succession of momentary intimacies: A homeless man holding the door for a late commuter. Lovers kissing and quarrelling in urine-stained stairwells. Buskers serenading listless shift workers. A jackhammer operator playing peek-a-boo with a passing child. Strangers squeezing wordlessly together and then separating as silently as they had arrived; flashes of the individual among the anonymity.

As the day wore on to night, the trains emptied and the interconnected stations became a sprawling and exhausted public housing project for the homeless escaping from the winter’s cold. We joined them on the benches, floors and bathrooms, wherever there was space and warmth. Each time we began to fall asleep, the police arrived to prod us awake again. Under the glare of constant lighting, keeping track of time had become impossible, if not irrelevant. We knew it was Sunday morning only by the smell of coffee and the squeak of church shoes on ceramic floor.

At 9am we stepped out of the underground and blinked into the everywhere brightness of the morning sun. Bleary-eyed, we made our way to the first cafe that we could find. While Travis was ordering at the counter, I found a seat, turned on my phone and began to idly scroll through the news. It has become rare that we afford ourselves even a day away from our devices -- 24 hours underground had felt like a long time. It occurred to me then that everyday life has started to feel a bit like transitional space, something that we are perpetually passing through and yet arriving nowhere.

“I got you a coffee and a bagel” I heard a voice close to me say. I looked up and saw Travis sitting across from me, smiling. I hadn’t even noticed that he had returned from the ordering counter. “Thank you”, I said, placing the bagel and coffee in front of me on the table. Then I reached over and turned off my phone. We spent the rest of the morning chatting and gazing at the passing crowds out the window.

Michael O. Snyder:


Instagram:  @michaelosnyder



Travis James:


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