A Summer Photographing New Jersey Transit

07/18/2019

In August 2017, I found myself in the throes of sudden personal upheaval. I had left a long-term relationship, moved out of the apartment we shared (my first and, at that time, only home in New York) and temporarily shipped out to my hometown—Woodbridge, NJ—to stay with a friend’s family while I figured out my next move.

Personal uncertainty has a history of begetting great art. Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot while exiled from Russia. Kahlo started painting in the wake of a bus accident she barely survived. Rodin sculpted The Kiss while suffering from intense heartache. While it is lofty to even indirectly compare myself to such luminaries, the legacy of artistic productivity in the wake of grief weighed heavily on my mind that summer as I commuted back and forth from Manhattan on New Jersey Transit.

When I found myself riding NJ Transit twice daily, I impulsively decided to take and post one photo of the interstate railway a day for the 48 days it was a part of my commute.

Nearly two years after the project, I still find it rife with insights on my personal creative journey.

I’m not a photographer, but I should still take photos

More than anything, I am a writer. I am not a photographer by training or even necessarily by practice, save for the iPhone photos I like to snap and post on Instagram. Still, committing myself to creating something in a visual medium every day unlocked a creative energy I badly needed to access that summer.

Simultaneous to #48DaysofNJTransit, I wrote a chapbook of narrative poetry, started a band, and wrote about two dozen songs. I recognized, then and now, that this kind of productivity was not sustainable, but I wished to tap into it for as long as it made itself available to me. In taking the time to take a picture every day, while also abandoning the fear that the photos might be bad, I developed a rhythm, a practice, that carried me through one of the most artistically productive summers I’ve ever had.

One artistic hand fed the other. It just so happened that the hand doing the heaviest lifting was one I hadn’t properly exercised before.

Social media kept me accountable

Posting photos of New Jersey Transit constituted almost 100% of my social media activity during this project. Every day, I posted the photo along with the uniform caption:

“48 Days of NJ Transit : x/48 | #njtransit #commute #48daysofnjtransit”

The photos never garnered much attention—the most active one was the final, which received only 42 ‘likes’—but the metrics attached to them didn’t matter. My audience, small as it was, was nevertheless a crucial factor. Making my work accessible to others turned out to be to be integral to my seeing this project through to the end.

It’s easy to have good ideas. Following through with them to a final product is trickier. Setting a public goal makes quietly backing out less possible, and furthermore less appealing.

Photography is healing

This was a summer of sudden personal upheaval, after all. In doing this, I developed a new perspective on the massive expanse of rails that comprise the system, the people who ride it, and the concept of public transit itself. Because I committed to documenting my experience aboard these trains, I found a dormant appreciation for something I had spent my whole life taking for granted.

The subjects of the photos in #48DaysofNJTransit were mostly the infrastructure itself: train cars and escalators, a bright red van in a gray parking lot, signs for local streets pressed against foliage, a public service ad on a lamppost imploring potential jumpers to remember, you’re not alone.

My favorite photos in the series, though—the ones to which I maintain the closest personal connection—are of people. I don’t like to photograph people’s faces without their consent, so I stuck only to unidentifiable parts, like the backs of heads or the long rows of feet protruding out from a packed train car’s seats. In one, a man is sprinting across the main floor of Penn Station to catch the train he’s probably about to miss. The photo catches him with both feet off the floor.

New Jersey Transit’s rail system services about 500,000 people a week. I don’t consider myself an exceptional photographer, but in taking time to capture human moments against the backdrop of this vital infrastructure, I set myself a precedent to follow the next time I find myself in a place of isolation, uncertainty, or great change. 

author photo, D.R. Baker
D.R. Baker (Guest Blogger)

D.R. Baker is the founder and editor of Tiny Essays. Their writing has appeared at Book Riot, Memoir Mixtapes, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Young Folks, Independent Music News, and others. As a musician, they have played guitar and bass for various acts over the past decade. Raised in New Jersey, educated in Ohio, and with brief forays into Michigan and Nevada, Dan now lives in New York City with their partner. Website: danbakerisokay.com | Twitter: @danbakerisokay