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Portraits From NYC’s Most Popular Reading Room: The Subway

Street photographer Ourit Ben-Haïm captures thousands of New Yorkers immersed in books of all sorts.

Reading on the subway is something of an art in New York, where elbows and inquisitive eyes–not to mention all manner of hijinks–can make reading in peace a challenge. Moroccan photographer and artist Ourit Ben-Haïm has made a sport out of watching subway-bound readers, collecting candid snapshots of commuters immersed in their books on her website, The Underground New York Public Library.

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Ben-Haïm, who works under the handle She Said Unprintable Things (a phrase borrowed from Lolita), posts new images to the UNYPL on a daily basis. Along with each image, she includes the name of the book being read and the author. If she can’t identify the book, she’ll ask her Tumblr followers for help. “I’m an artist and a storyteller,” she says. “The NYC subway provides a constant metaphorical suggestion of the relationship between our stories and our journey.” Her subjects are old and young, couples and groups of readers whose relationships are ambiguous. Because she has over 10,000 followers, there’s an unusual feedback loop that often occurs with her postings–people will respond not only to help identify the books being read, but also to identify the subjects themselves.

Ben-Haïm studied comparative literature and history in college, but has always taken photographs. She shoots with a Canon 5D Mark II, a conspicuously large camera that doesn’t allow very much subtlety in a subway car. But the 29-year-old says that interacting with her subjects is one of the reasons she loves street photography. “Reactions tend to be curious or puzzled when I shoot, and in general very accepting and encouraging once I explain why I’m taking the photographs,” she explains over email. “I love the process of making these photographs in part because of the amazingly pleasant engagement with people.”

Given the growing prevalence of digital readers, UNPYL is a kind of ad hoc memorial to the increasingly rare printed word. “There is loss and gain with all change, and the shift to eReaders is no exception,” says Ben-Haïm. “An eReader is less visually vulnerable, and my perspective is that this is a social loss.” At the same time, she adds that she loves her own tablet, and wants to portray the shift between paper and reader, too. “I love when the shift is visually visible in my photographs, in the cases where there are people with print books and eReaders within the same frame.”

Above all, says the young photographer, the images are about “all aspects of Story”–capitalization intended. “I’m fascinated by how we apply ourselves to stories and discourse,” she explains on UNYPL. “This library freely lends out a reminder that we’re capable of traveling to great depths within ourselves and as a whole.”

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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