Hannah La Follette Ryan is a New York City based photographer and the creative mind behind @subwayhands. Drawn to the unassuming, yet expressive hands of New Yorkers, Hannah captures commuters holding hands, books, flowers, phones, fruit, pets, coffee cups. Intimate, yet alien, her images paint the human experience through involuntary movements and candid expressiveness.
Last month, we spoke with Hannah about her career milestones and the allure of strangers' hands.
Kinn: We love your work. Tell us a little bit about how you got started.
Hannah: I moved to New York City fresh out of college. I had a 45 minute commute to my day job as a nanny, which taught me that public transit is the perfect place to people watch. Most riders have a guarded facial expression, distracted or withdrawn, but I learned that hands are their tell. People fidget, self-soothe, crack knuckles, crochet, shadow box—on the NYC subway, you see it all. I started taking candid portraits of passengers’ hands with my iPhone. It felt like New Yorkers were offering a glimpse into their inner lives through their gestures. It quickly became a habit. Whenever I rode the subway, I captured more expressive hands and posted them to my Instagram.
Kinn: Why hands? What attracted you to them? What makes you want to photograph them?
Hannah: I remember being fascinated by older hands as a kid. I loved holding hands with my grandfather and my dad. I noticed the difference in the texture of our skin, evidence of the life they lived before me. Hands are expressive and central to how we navigate the world. Hands can be elegant, sculptural, odd-looking—their versatility has held my interest for the last ten years.
Kinn: Can you describe how Subway Hands became so successful? What were some major milestones for you?
Hannah: Subway Hands started out as a slow burn. Initially I only shared the photos with friends and family. But as the project progressed, I became more confident and committed. I think its success comes from the interactive element. Riding public transit is a shared experience and, in particular, the MTA has its own polarizing personality. People tell me they notice strangers’ hands now because of my photos. Sometimes they'll pull up my account when they’re commuting. I only post my own photos to my Instagram, but I still routinely receive submissions from all over the world. My most recent milestone came from closer to home. I was asked to photograph the hands of the band “boygenius” to announce their Madison Square Garden show. The photo made it onto a billboard in Times Square. I’m used to seeing my photos on a tiny phone screen so it was a huge shock and thrill to see one of my photographs on the side of a building.
Kinn: Do you have a favorite pair of hands you’ve shot?
Hannah: My grandparents’ hands.
Kinn: Can you tell us a memorable story about photographing people on the subway?
Hannah: Last fall, I stopped short on the A train when I saw a sign that said “WILL YOU MARRY ME?” A group of friends were huddled around it. Someone had a go pro and another guy was wearing a new suit and fiddling with a ring box. I told the guy in the suit that the ring looked beautiful, wished him luck and snapped a photo of the sign. I posted the photo and a couple hours later received the comment: “she said yes!!!!”
Kinn: How does jewelry play a role in your photography?
Hannah: I’m drawn to detail and always clock jewelry and accessories. I love to speculate about the emotional histories behind strangers’ signet rings, nameplate necklaces, monogrammed cufflinks. Those details add texture and narrative to my photographs. Speaking for myself, the pieces I wear are quite sentimental. My jewelry connects me directly to my loved ones and I draw strength from them every day.
Shop Hannah's look here.