by Christina Endres
The Underground New York Public Library is a photography project by Ourit Ben-Haim, through which she documents the day to day acts of people reading while using public transportation.
Ben-Haim travels the subways of New York City, snapping photos of riders reading. A young man reading Proust, a older gentlemen absorbed in The Talmud, two men in ties sharing Twitter Power 2.0: How to Dominate Your Market One Tweet at Time; photo after photo reveals something about throngs of people who ride the New York City subway. Ben-Haim almost always notes which book her subjects are reading, and when she doesn’t, her more than 35,000 Tumblr followers help her solve the mystery. In fact, she posts an “Unsolved Title” photo every Friday, and her followers have helped her identify all of them.
Ben-Haim rarely posts any caption besides the title and author of the book, but does have several times a week where she posts on a theme if possible. On Sundays, you’ll find a Sunday Morning Bible photo. On Tuesdays, followers help Ben-Haim with a Tuesday Translation. Ben-Haim wraps up her weekly posts with a Friday eReader photo.
Sometimes her subjects notice her taking their picture, and sometimes they don’t. When they do, Ben-Haim explains why she is taking their photo, and stops if they object. She never lists the train the photo was taken on, because she doensn’t want this project to be about the patterns this might reveal. As she describes on her website, “I’m not an anthropologist and revealing the literary side of our socio-economic reality isn’t my goal. I want to create a portrait of us that makes a simple statement: we’re all involved in the story.”
The result is a beautiful collection of all types of people reading all types of books, in public. The point of the project seems not to see which kind of riders and reading which kinds of books, but rather to illustrate that so many people are spending their time learning and growing through books. In a series of questions she answered for Tumblr Storyboard, Ben-Haim explains,
To read is to be willing to engage ourselves towards discovery. Reading any book demonstrates this willingness. When I see the Reading-Riders, I see people who are contemplating description of new possibilities. In this way, every book says that its reader is simply great.
In a society that seems to keep asking, “Does anyone even read books anymore?”, the Underground New York Public Library is a resounding answer in the affirmative. On her site, Ben-Haim puts it like this: “Reading isn’t an anomaly and it probably never will be. The project isn’t trying to document something rare. It’s an attempt to reveal us as we are.”