Chris Maliwat: Subwaygram

Essay by Aaron L. Morrison

Steadfast, by Aaron L. Morrison

For a system older than the Spanish flu, the last pandemic to leave an unfathomable amount of human destruction in its wake, New York City’s subway may be the world’s most indelible public resource.

With very few interruptions, it deposits and disburses humanity. Through plague, natural disaster, and man-made calamity, the system was designed to be steadfast and resolute in its purpose.

Boosters and hustlers. Evangelists and doomsdayers. Abusers and shooters. Whoever may lurk on its platforms, the subway’s trains arrive, open up, and issue polite instruction.

Stand clear of the closing doors, please.

Of course, the subway and its devotees are just as capable of spreading joy and hope as they are of triggering our anxiety and fears. The smile that spreads across our faces, masked or unmasked, when a father lovingly occupies the attention of his adorably dressed daughters until they can reach their destination. The second-hand confidence we feel when a fellow rider was meticulous in assembling that night-out ensemble.

And there are the laughs we get, the ones that momentarily pierce through our worries. The giggle that we have to stifle when we realize we’re sitting across from a bearded dragon that has its own luxurious carrier. The way we can’t wait to get above ground to tell someone about the Sailor Moon character sandwiched between two men who appear slovenly in comparison.

A safe ride for many of us requires a kind of hypnosis, a mental pendulum swinging between a state of daydream and alertness. That hypnosis makes almost bearable the forced physical closeness, the delays, or the bellowed sermons and “showtime” performances from which there seems no escape.

We’re our truest self in the subway. The system unmasks riders without removing face coverings, often with indifference.

It reveals the predators, the self-absorbed, and the bigots. It calls out to activists, first responders, and good Samaritans. And it watches as riders straddle the line of good and evil, measuring how brotherly we’ll be to each other in the short time that we must share space.

We’ll all get to where we’re going, even when the destination is unknown. We’ll endure.

Do not hold the doors.

This collection of images—moments that are otherwise blips in the expansive history of New York’s public transit system—shows how humanity grapples with daily life, unaware of what the ride has in store.

Yes, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 greatly altered our existence. But the subway has to be impervious in the ways that humans are not.

For that reason, Chris Maliwat’s Subwaygram is prescient and a rare body of work. A historical record, a testimony of our values, a parable of inequality. Moments worth preserving and studying.

Read the entirety of Aaron L. Morrison's essay Steadfast in Chris Maliwat's Subwaygram.

Chris Maliwat

Chris Maliwat is a street-portrait photographer who captures surreptitious moments of everyday people on their journeys in the cities where they live. 

Subwaygram Instagram

Aaron L. Morrison

Aaron L. Morrison is a New York City based journalist whose work on race, criminal justice and grassroots social movements has been published by The Associated Press, the global nonprofit news wire.