A Rare Glimpse At New York’s Subway Conductors

Dutch photographer Janus van den Eijnden captures the city’s subterranean workers.

New Yorkers know the feeling: pounding down the stairs against a flood of commuters spilling out of a subway car. The doors are open for a second, before they close shut, right in front of you. Every now and again, a miracle happens and a conductor will open the sliding doors again to let you dash onboard. A wave of gratitude washes over you–but for whom, exactly? The moment has passed.


Janus van den Eijnden’s portraits of New York City subway conductors press pause on the moment. There’s a tension at play: you finally get to look–for as long as you like–at the faces that help get an annual 1.7 billion commuters where they need to go. Yet each photograph is a near clone of the last: same silver metal siding, same rectangular conductor’s window that reveals the subject from just the waist up, same starched blue uniform. Each individual in the series even holds a similar posture: one hand resting on the windowpane, gazing off into space.

“What I find so interesting about the New York subway is that it can be a place of total chaos but also of total tranquility,” van den Eijnden tells Co.Design. “I’m looking for that moment when the drivers didn’t pay any attention to me or their surroundings. When they’re lost in thought, those are the strongest portraits in the series.”

Van den Eijnden started snapping the portraits during a 2008 trip to New York City, and cites photographer Bruce Davidson’s Subway series from the 1980s as an influence. But while the two series share a subterranean locale, they differ wildly in what they tell us about the city. Besides the hairdos, Davidson’s photos, like the contagious Humans of New York blog and book, let you to stare into the eyes of the city’s inhabitants, and ponder the many walks of human life that mingle in this vast city. Van den Eijnden makes you do more work: the similar setting for every subject could easily cause them to blend into one, but the series forces you to look closer and see the individuality in all that repetition.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.