For Hannah La Follette, Hands Are The Most Interesting Part Of The Subway
How the Brooklyn-based photographer transformed her morning commute by intimately documenting New York’s most beloved shared space with Subway Hands.
Photos by Lauren Daccache
Some say the eyes are the gateway to the soul, but Hannah La Follette set her sights elsewhere. “I have all my loved ones' hands memorized because that's the way my brain works,” Hannah confessed on a warm Friday evening over Moroccan mint tea. We met last month, nestled in a small classroom at the International Center for Photography. I shamelessly enrolled in Hannah’s course on iPhone Street Photography the moment I discovered she was teaching it, and I wasn’t the only one.
While most students had some level of photography experience, we all shared a fascination with Hannah and her quintessential New York series @subwayhands. As the name would suggest, the account turns the hands of unsuspecting subway riders into a work of art.
The course encouraged students to practice “the art of patiently observing the lives of strangers.” These patient observations have amassed over 400K followers on Instagram and appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, Interview Magazine, and elsewhere. Most recently, she has been documenting the hands of protesters demonstrating across New York City in support of Palestine. Surrounded by the brisk autumn air, the photographer met with me to discuss transportation’s greatest equalizer, finding familiarity in new places and the story behind her love of hands.
Justine: How would you explain Subway Hands to someone who just noticed you taking a photo on their commute?
Hannah: I start by complimenting the person because all of my photos are rooted in appreciation or patient observation. I explain that I have this portrait series of hands on the subway. I’m documenting the experience of living in this city, and the subway is the heart of my favorite city in the world. And I would thank them for participating.
Justine: How would you describe it to a friend and former student?
Hannah: Subway Hands is a quirky hyper-fixation and labor of love that has become my full-time job in a way that delights me and surprises me every day.
Justine: Could you take me back to the first photo that inspired the account and how it got going?
Hannah: I had just moved to New York. I was fresh out of college and working as a nanny. I had a commute of like an hour and a half every day. I haven't always identified as an artist, but I always made stuff. The only time I had to make things was when I was on the train. It was the only idle time I had, and it coincided with this exuberant joy of living in the city that I'd fantasized about living in for my whole life and doing all of this voracious people-watching. I've always wanted to take portraits, but I find that it's a complicated genre. It requires sensitivity, time, and patience. I've always tried to find ways to document identity that are maybe less traditional, but achieve the same intimacy and disarming quality.
Justine: And then, how did Subway Hands come to fruition?
Hannah: I was on the train, and I noticed this woman whose hands had so much tension. It was clear to me that she was really anxious. I had just moved, and I was experiencing a lot of anxiety myself, so I immediately recognized it in her. On my morning commute, I noticed how blank people's expressions were like everybody was in a deep dissociative state. You see all these strangers, and you get to speculate about their lives. But when you look at their faces, often there were no clues. Just people staring off into the distance. And so suddenly I realized, ‘Oh, the hands are the tell, that's where the story is. That's where the energy is, that's where we carry our energy.’
As soon as I saw her hands and that tension, the next thing my eyes saw was the pole directly to the right of her, and someone was clutching the pole so tightly with a bandaid on their knuckles.
And I was like, ‘Oh my god, these are two novels happening right next to each other.’ And I took the photos in rapid succession and immediately was like, this is something I could do for a long time. This is so interesting to me. Suddenly, every person becomes an interesting subject.
I've struggled with other kinds of street portraiture and photography. Certain artists seem to filter for interesting or unusual faces and ignore everyone else. This felt like a new rubric or a corrective rubric on how to photograph humanity in everyday life.
Justine: What is it about the subway car itself that breeds such intimacy?
Hannah: I think it’s the uniformity of the subway—the aesthetic and ritual of it. We are moving in and out of different cars all the time, every day, but they all look the same and feel the same. There's comfort in familiarity, and because I'm on the train constantly, it just feels like an extension of my home.
There are so many people in New York, and we all get wedged together. You get the encyclopedic diversity in New York City, and you see it on public transit – even the wealthiest New Yorkers will admit that it’s the fastest way to move around the city. People ride for efficiency and the economy of movement. We're willing to endure close quarters to get where we’re trying to go. It's this temporary moment where people are okay with literally being squished together. There is camaraderie in that, which I'm always touched by.
Justine: We're all in this together, literally.
Hannah: Totally. One time, I witnessed someone pass out on a train. We were in a tunnel. Someone reached to pull the emergency brake and, in unison, like five New Yorkers yelled, ‘DON’T.’ They were communicating two things. One: “Likelike hell you're gonna inconvenience me, no fucking way,” and then two: that's gonna make everything worse because the emergency workers won't be able to reach him. He was fine, and it was so endearingly New York in hindsight.
Justine: You've been photographing commutes since 2015, your account beautifully documents the passage of time in New York. What do you think is the biggest shift you've noticed?
Hannah: In the aftermath of COVID, I have noticed more stranger danger on the subway. People are more cognizant of strangers in their space, and I wasn't quite as bold or quick to walk into someone's airspace. I've also noticed there are just a lot more gentrifiers on every train car.
Justine: Your work has become so popular that brands like Valentino and artists like Boygenius are commissioning their very own subway photoshoots. What is it like to replicate your candid relationships with strangers on such a large scale?
Hannah: It's a treat for me, for the most part, because I get to build relationships, which typically I don't get to do when I'm photographing strangers on the subway—because what I'm doing is so discreet and subtle. I am not interacting with most of my subjects, so getting to actually collaborate with models or musicians where there is a team is such a joy for me. I'm not used to having coworkers. I love translating the Subway Hands project into a new context. It keeps it exciting and invigorating for me. In the same way that we see so many different lived experiences represented on the subway, there are many ways of adapting that subject and that space to various people and circumstances. I love bringing new energies and spinoffs into the work.
Justine: Speaking of artists, I know that photography is one of several art mediums that you play with, I also read that Alfred Stieglitz’s portraits of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands were a big inspiration for you. How would you say that non-photography influences impact your approach behind the lens?
Hannah: I would say that I try to pull from as many non-photography references as possible. I think it's so important for artists to think outside of their medium. I think photography, in particular, oftentimes only references itself. I take so much inspiration from movies and from paintings and writing. And I believe it makes my work stronger and more dynamic.
Justine: Are there any artists inspiring you at the moment?
Hannah: I've been reading Etel Adnan's poetry, she's so brilliant. The book is called Sea and Fog. It’s made up of these little snippets, tweet length. They’re very compatible with the way that my brain and attention span works. I've just really been enjoying reading them.
Justine: Your class at ICP focused a lot on the importance of conveying your intention as a photographer. What message do you wish you could telepathically send to your subject?
Hannah: I would immediately radiate my positive intentions. I think that would free both of us. The subject would be spared the momentary discomfort or the skepticism, and I would be spared the anxiety of wondering, ‘What if they think the worst of me?’ I'd also telepathically communicate the beauty of their hands. It genuinely surprises me when I compliment someone's hands, and they say, ‘No one's ever said that to me. I'm like, ‘Your hands are objectively beautiful, you could hand model. How has no one said that to you?’ That blows my mind, but happens often. It's not something people think to compliment each other on.
Justine: You’ve recently taken your photography above ground to document the various marches for Palestine. I noticed similar themes—intimate close-up shots, and obviously lots of hands. How do you think your style of photography will be interpreted in the narratives being told about these marchers?
Hannah: My intention is to convey the texture and reality of these activists and protesters in a way that doesn't endanger their safety. We live in a climate where activists are getting doxxed and targeted, so focusing on hands and small details is twofold. It's one, more practical, because I want to protect people's identities, and then secondly, it conveys that these are real, passionate people who make small decisions every day, and one of the bigger decisions they're making is to bravely stand up and vocalize their beliefs and politics. I’ve found that you can capture events more vividly by focusing on details rather than the crowds. I'm artistically disinterested in photographing big groups of people to the point that they're just absent in my work.
Justine: If you zoom out a little bit, how has Subway Hands changed the way that you see the world?
Hannah: I think strangers have become less scary. I was a really shy kid, I hated disturbing people. I think if I weren't an artist and photographer, I would be much more reserved. Being compelled to document the lives of strangers has really pushed my personality and comfort level in a new direction in spite of myself. Every day I'm tuning into what makes individuals singular. I'm actively looking for it. That's what this project is about. And so I think it’s made me that much more enamored by mankind.
Follow Hannah's work at @subwayhands.