I get off work at 5 am, so my commute home happens when the rest of the city is usually still asleep. Sometimes, though, I catch the tail end of someone’s late night out, and that’s what happened here, at 5 am one Saturday morning in the Union Square subway station in New York.

I was transferring to the L line to go home to Brooklyn, and as I got closer to the stairs, I heard this joyful singing and clapping, so loud it came over the noise of whatever I had on my iPod. I often kill time in the subway taking photos of people, so I had my iPhone close by. There’s a spot on the staircase where you’re elevated but can see the platform below, and that’s where I stood to watch these people dancing and singing. I have no idea who they were, but they were clearly a happy group of people who are used to performing together.

That early in the morning, the trains run about 20 minutes apart, which means I’m usually killing time wandering the platform with a camera, trying not to bother people but also trying to capture the scenes most people don’t see because they’re happily in bed. In this case, though, the time that passed between hearing the music, seeing its source, snapping the photo and boarding my arriving train was about three minutes–not enough time to really think about what I was doing, but enough time to try to capture a truly fleeting moment before going home to bed.

The New York City subways have inspired photographers for a century, with good reason. Every time you pay your fare, it’s a completely different scene: crowded, empty, people in a hurry, people with their guard down. You never know what you’re going to get. There are a million moments every day, and we’re lucky to catch a few of them as images. Getting off work at 5 am isn’t an ideal schedule, but the silver lining is that I’m regularly in the subway at a time when most people don’t see the surprisingly active life it still has, even in the dead of night. Are you ever home, cozy in your pajamas, wondering if maybe the rest of the world is having one big party out there without you? Well, sometimes, like here at 5 am on a nearly deserted subway platform, it is.

The New York City subways have inspired photographers for a century, with good reason.

The story here isn’t so much mine as it is the musicians’. I don’t know where they came from, and I don’t know why they were singing, but it’s a good bet they were on their way home from a spectacular Friday night. Most of the time the people you see at that hour are tired, glazed, just ready to get to wherever they have to be at the crack of dawn. These singers didn’t care about any of that: they were there to sing, happily, joyfully, loudly, enthusiastically. We could all use a little more of that in our lives, no matter what we’re doing.

I love photographing musicians, especially when they are swept up in the moment. And I love shooting in the subway, because it’s almost like a living organism. It’s rare that I get to shoot the two together; in this case, I’m just lucky that the two lined up so perfectly for so fleeting a moment, and that I was there to capture it. I like to think that every photo I take prepares me for the next one, and in this case, years of shooting performers and shooting the subway collided in this one shot.

I make images to stay sane. Because if I didn’t, I’d be biting my nails, or running marathons, or maybe writing a novel, or whatever it is other people do with the nervous energy that I channel into photography.

I often see the images whether I shoot them or not, but mobile photography allows me to be less intrusive and quicker than I am with any of my other cameras. The minute I bring a DLSR with a big lens up to take a shot, the scene changes, because people see the camera and act differently. With a phone, though, they don’t know whether I’m playing Angry Birds or writing an e-mail or making a piece of art. The scene doesn’t change when I pull out the iPhone, and I’m thankful for that advantage.

I’m not much interested in changing an image through apps. To me, the most interesting images are made through composition, and that’s something no filter can create for you. Photography for me–mobile or not–is less about the abstract and more about the moment in time. I’m fond of converting images to black and white, and I’ll take as many photos of my daily coffee as my Flickr stream will put up with, but the photos I care about–the photos I want to see other people produce–are the ones that show me a moment I wouldn’t have seen myself, or been in a position to create myself. I like to think some people feel the same way about my subway shots.

Erin Mccann

About the MPA

The Mobile Photo Awards were founded to promote the global phenomenon of mobile photography and art.  The awards are committed to presenting the art-form in galleries and exhibits. The MPA is the world's largest open gallery call and competition of its kind.
The Mobile Photo Awards were founded to promote and celebrate mobile photography and art. With fine-art exhibits, competitions and open gallery calls, the MPA is the world's largest event of it's kind.