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A Show of Hands

Hannah La Follette Ryan ’09 sees beauty and stories on the subway

In the past six months, COVID-19 has changed the way we see hands. They’ve become vectors of contamination to be scrubbed and disinfected and kept away from others. But photographer Hannah La Follette Ryan ’09 sees beauty and tenderness in these appendages, not just danger or disease. 

Five years ago, Ryan started taking pictures of people’s hands on the New York subway and posting them to Instagram, figuring it was a way to document her commute from her Brooklyn apartment to her job as a nanny in Manhattan. More than 1,200 posts later, the account known as “Subway Hands” has attracted 228,000 followers and Ryan’s photos have appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine, on, and in commercial projects for Tiffany & Co. and Valentino. 

“Hands can be just as expressive as faces,” she says. “There is always something in a person’s hands that makes you want to know more about them.”

“There is always something in a person’s hands that makes you want to know more about them.”

Ryan started taking photographs at 13, and continued throughout her postgraduate year at NMH, a gap year working at King’s Academy in Jordan, and four years at Vassar. She moved to New York after college, and found herself spending an hour on the train every day. “I've always been a people-watcher, so in those early days, I was looking at New Yorkers, trying to get clues from them as to how to exist in the city,” she says. She was struck by their differences. Some people fidgeted and gripped the subway poles tightly, while others were relaxed enough to put on their make-up, oblivious to the strangers surrounding them. Ryan recalled pictures she’d seen in an art history class, of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands looking graceful and stylized, “almost like a ballet,” she says. She pulled out her phone and snapped her first Subway Hands photo.

In the beginning, she tried to be surreptitious, not wanting her subjects to know she was photographing them. Over time, she became bolder. If discovered, she’d explain her project and share her photos with the person whose hands she had just photographed. 

The pandemic brought Ryan’s project to a halt. She didn’t ride the subway for nearly three months. “It was deeply disorienting, because as an artist, the subway was my studio,” she says. She got back on the train in early summer, when New York was still reeling from the pandemic and also was convulsed with protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Riding the subway was a somber experience. “The energy and crazy juxtapositions of all the different lives — none of that was there,” Ryan says. “It was sparsely populated and everyone was being hypervigilant. I’m used to being pretty invisible and moving around a lot when I take pictures, and it felt like people were much more aware of my presence. We all have ‘stranger danger’ now.”

“It will take a long time for subway life to return to the liveliness we had before.”

While she predicts it will take a long time for subway life to “return to the liveliness we had before,” Ryan continues to document what she sees there. And she still delights in the connections she’s able to make with her Instagram followers. One time, she says, someone recognized a photo of their boyfriend’s hands that Ryan had posted, with “these amazing tattoos that were totally unique,” Ryan says. “It was an incredible, serendipitous moment.” Other times, people message her, thinking they’ve recognized their own hands or their friends’ hands. “They’ll say, ‘Was that photo taken on the Berlin subway two days ago?’ and I have to say, ‘No, sorry, definitely not.’ But I just love when that happens. Because it means people see themselves in my pictures.”


Photos: Hannah La Follette Ryan ’09 

Find Ryan’s photos on Instagram.