Boston Below: Photographers Explore the Underbelly of the MBTA
Some riders might not know it—craning their necks to stare at the ground, or gazing into a smartphone as the service fluctuates, doing anything imaginable to avoid eye contact with other passengers—but there’s a lot more to the MBTA than just the few stops they use during their daily commutes.
“Most people get on at one station, and get off on another,” said photographer Joe Votano. “They should know what goes on behind the MBTA. Also, they should know something about the environment they spend so much time in.”
In their first-ever published book, Boston Below, through Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Votano and fellow photographer Karen Hosking explore the ins and outs of the MBTA’s structure; from the people who pack the platforms and railway cars, to the workers who spend hours attending to outdated trains. They try to capture, for the first time, what Votano calls “an expansive view of the entire system.”
“We thought it was something that hadn’t been done before,” said Votano, a former MIT scientist and retired computer software company owner. “We wanted to express the aesthetics and architecture of the stations using colors, and good perspective views of the structures. As for people, it was catching them doing just what they do. We wanted a story with each of the images. We always looked for a story behind the images.”
The book, a series of 145 color and black-and-white photos, exposes the behavior of riders, the work ethic of employees, and the often-ignored landscapes that are intertwined through the miles of underground tunnels.
The book is supplemented with an expansive introduction that details the history of the entire system and how it transformed over the centuries. The result is a culmination of three years of images that captures an “atmosphere of isolation,” in a community of riders traveling so closely together. “People don’t really relate to one another as much as they should. We are all in the same community, and you should think of the T riders as a community,” said Votano. “They are sort of estranged, but when it comes to doing something for somebody, they can be courteous.”
Votano, who picked up photography in 2005, quickly made a hobby of snapping pictures of strangers going about their daily routines. He later met Hosking at the Greater Lynn Photographic Association, a group of avid artists that collaborate on projects, and teach the craft of taking photos.
Since 2011, Votano and Hosking have been meeting regularly, early in the morning, and exploring the T’s system, both above and below ground, and even gained access to the rail yards where the trains go for repairs and regular maintenance procedures.
Stepping outside of just the monotony of being a commuter, and taking time to examine the colors, architecture, and work that goes into keeping the vehicles running, Hosking took on a new appreciation for the antiquated transit system—something she hopes readers can digest when viewing their photos.
“This project was so extensive, and we did this over many months and days, and in that time you just get better at understanding how to engage with people, and you start to notice things,” she said. “People just don’t notice everything about the T.”
What Hosking and Votano noticed, however, was the pattern of human behaviors when sharing a train car with complete strangers. Within what Hosking called a “microcosm” of diversity—from businessmen to artists carrying their supplies—everyone expressed a similar attitude. “I think when you look at the way people interact, it’s difficult being in a compressed state when you’re on the subway, especially during rush hour. If you look at some of these images, you will see that,” said Votano.
Other images managed to capture people in less crowded, candid circumstances, engaged in thought as they sat huddled on the train. “Spontaneity is something you have to capture to get those moments,” said Votano, admitting that sometimes he would “shoot from the hip” to discreetly get the perfect shot.
While portraits were often Votano’s strong suit, Hosking balanced the project’s message with her pictures of the stations’ architecture, and images of the T workers.
She said her favorite part was walking among the mechanics as they tended to the rusted train parts, once the cars came off the tracks. “There was so much morale and pride in their work, it was apparent everywhere we went,” she said. “They were fixing these 100-year-old cars and manufacturing parts that they can’t get anymore. Everyone was very proud of their work. It was very uplifting to see it.”