Subway Hands Provides an Intimate Glimpse into the Lives of New York City Commuters

The Instagram page is filled with candid snapshots of subway riders' hands.
August 14, 2018
7 mins read

In the heat of the thick, underground air and the bustling of anxious, compact commuters, a New York City subway car seems like the last place to find any sort of beauty. Although its passengers are the likes of artists, thinkers, creators and believers, riding along the rickety tracks is almost always an un-extraordinary experience.

But, if you’ve ever wondered about the person you’re touching thighs with during rush hour, or why the lady across from you is looking glum while holding a bouquet of flowers, then you may not need to look any further than their hands.

Hannah La Follette Ryan, the creator and photographer behind the viral Instagram page Subway Hands, makes this sentiment clear. The account, which has attracted 46.6K followers since its inception, is a collection of snapshots of commuters’ hands Ryan takes while on her usual subway route. While it appears strange at first, the growing popularity of the page proves that thousands of people share the same fascination with the simple, honest nature of hands, and what they imply about human character.

Being a commuter in New York City myself, I often find my eyes darting from person to person, not knowing where to settle my gaze. The various odd and charming characters that compose the makeup of big city rush-hour are all the entertainment needed on a trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

There’s the sloppy eater shoveling down a 99 cent hot dog or sipping away on a venti Starbucks drink, the germaphobe who grips the hand rails through the protection of a sanitary napkin or the couple sitting almost on top of each other with their fingers interlaced. Subway Hands captures these familiar characters in a setting that’s not necessarily unknown, but is newly specific.


Instead of focusing on the whole person, Ryan focuses in on what would at first appear to be one of the more boring aspects of the human body. However, after perusing through Subway Hands, that is hardly the case. Viewers don’t see a person munching on a snack, but instead note their hands stuck in a bag of Lays.

Perhaps the face of a teenage boy isn’t pictured, but the roses he has cradled in his palms are. Though hardly noticed before, Subway Hands works to reveal that the most intimate aspects of the human experience are present in the hands.

Between the calloused fingertips, sweaty palms and torn nail beds, hands expose the inner-workings of daily life and the joys and grievances that come with it. You can tell a lot about a person by their hands: an aged, weathered man unveils himself through the way his knuckles bend and twist; an anxious mother sits with her shaky hands in her lap; a recent or soon-to-be graduate grips their embellished cap; a bored child twiddles her thumbs and braids fishtails into tousled hair.

Personality and interests shine here too: a young adult sporting swatches of pink and purple lipstick hues on the backside of the palm, a quirky wrist tattoo, a makeshift bouquet finding life in a water bottle or a tightly held book.


There’s something telling about hands, and more so, about how subconsciously they are used. More than likely, all the people captured in Ryan’s photos are unaware of what they’re doing, how they’re contorting their hands around the poles or how uncomfortably (or comfortably?) they seem to be holding their friend’s hands.

The way in which the body chooses to involuntarily act and react is something that can’t be recreated artificially since it’s all raw truth. In an interview with AM New York, Ryan commented on this by stating, “That’s the beauty of it …Your hands just reacting and responding to what you’re thinking about and your surroundings. And that’s what I’m trying to photograph. That honest expression.”

The honest expression Ryan speaks of is what primarily draws such a large following to Subway Hands. A guilty pleasure among commuters everywhere is the innate urge to people watch and to be curious about the secret lives about the strangers around you. Who are these people? Who is it that’s sitting next to you? How are you different, how are you alike?

No one’s hiding on a subway train, and no commuter cares enough to think about how they’re presenting themselves to the world. It is a setting built for wonder. Subway Hands allows for people watching through the comfort of one’s own home and the convenience of a screen.

Ryan’s nuanced idea of showcasing the subtle intricacies of human emotion through such a simple concept is nothing short of perfection. It’s raw, real and built for the imagination. It is exactly what it says it is: Subway Hands. It is easy to forget, especially in a non-stop city like New York, that everyone beside you is human, just like you.

Everyone has their strange quirks, problems and anxieties, and everyone has to travel from point A to point B. However, one thing is for certain: Everyone is holding on, whether it be to a pole, a book, a rose, the hand of another or themselves. On a beloved, strange little Instagram page, you’ll find the proof.

Lexi Anderson, Pratt Institute

Writer Profile

Lexi Anderson

Pratt Institute

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