The fair and obvious statement “everyone is different” is what photographer Evan Pantiel demonstrates and celebrates in The Sthlm Subway Portrait Project.
What started off as a middle-of-the-night, middle-of-the-city, drunken-night-dwellers photo booth idea is quickly turning into one of Stockholm’s freshest and most captivating photo reportages. “The contrast in people from different subway lines and subway stops is the core of this project,” says American ex-pat photographer Evan Pantiel.
Pantiel first envisioned a photo reportage focusing on Stockholm’s metro system, *tunnelbanan*, and its commuters back in late November of 2013. Seven months later, the project is gaining recognition as it gravitates toward its genuine essence.
We couldn’t let such a Totally Stockholm-esque project piece go by without getting our hands on it, and so I sat down with Evan and his assistant to discuss the birth, the vision, the facts and the mishaps about what it is like to document Stockholm’s subway but moreover, Stockholmers themselves.
First, let’s get the basics out of the way. This is the part where you, the reader wonder who the hell Evan Pantiel is and the part where I, the writer, inform you. Pantiel is an American who has been living in Stockholm for a total of seven years. When he first arrived he worked as a server at a restaurant and now years later he still regards social skills as the most essential characteristic needed in any field of work, and especially for The Sthlm Subway Portrait Project series. “You have to be outgoing in this line of work,” says Pantiel.
Rosanna Krook, Pantiel’s girlfriend and serendipitous project assistant, gets a lot, if not all, of the credit from her boyfriend. Evan swears that she is the ‘backbone’ of the portrait series and although he has been here for seven years now, Pantiel has succumbed to Stockholmers’ impeccable English: he only speaks and understands basic Swedish. “I am not going to say I would not be able to do the project without her, but it would be a lot more difficult. She is so bubbly and friendly. She speaks the language. She makes it all run smooth.”
So far, so sweet. As if this project wasn’t already attempting to showcase Stockholm’s diversity, citizens and their stories, it is being done by a couple too?
Pantiel knows he got lucky with such a supportive girlfriend. “Rosanna thinks I do all of the work, which is weird because I think she does all of the work,” says Pantiel.
And a story is really where this one begins. As Evan puts it, “Everyone has their story. Everyone is a little personal novel.” For now, it is clear that Pantiel has set out to read a bit of everyone’s book.
Pantiel and Krook say they have both really learned from the portrait project series. Both agree that people are in fact interesting and that everyone has something going on, especially at the subway when a person is en route from point A to point B. Krook even confessed to learning that ‘strangers aren’t that bad’ and she enjoys spending time with her boyfriend on what she sees solely as his work, but is in fact one of the main ways they spend their time together.
Back before Rosanna’s charm landed Pantiel their interviews, he tried working by himself, and he admits that at first there were some kinks he had to address in order to get rolling. After two months of adjusting his lighting, props, establishing portability and making sure his series wasn’t too familiar to other projects such as Humans of New York (HONY), he was ‘riding steady’; a photographer’s trial and error, if you will. Once Krook joined, then it became plain sailing but first there would be a little bit of failure and nerves.
“I was so nervous the first time. I don’t even remember the guy’s name.”
It was at the Slussen subway stop. Pantiel went in and took a man’s portrait only to literally be kicked out of the subway station by the security guards seconds later. “It is actually one of my favourite shots. I would use it if I had the man’s information.”
I actually felt like giving him a hug when he recounted his first attempt… it was just so… so sad-sounding. I think the word which is am looking for is ‘pathetic’ but that makes it all the more sadder.
Alas! As with all determination, Pantiel went on to contact the department in charge of the rules and regulations for Stockholm’s metro and acquired the knowledge and the permissions necessary to continue with the series. “Everyone rides the subway,” notes Pantiel, but that mere fact is exactly what appealed to him, particularly when comparing it to his initial idea of a midnight photo booth.
He craved depth and not just “a bunch of drunks,” as he puts it himself. And although Krook and Pantiel shared some entertaining anecdotes about the drunks they have met, interviewed and photographed, both maintain that they have always felt safe and have never had a problem while collecting their data, even in the “rough” neighborhoods.
I asked Evan which of the subway stops he considers to be his favorite thus far into the project. Without hesitation he responded: “Hornstull, hands down. Everyone is awesome and everyone says yes. You know who never says yes? Old people! I want a photo of an elderly couple so bad!”
So old folks say no and Hornstull rules? How long will this project go on then?
“I don’t think it is ever going to have an end. I guess when I feel it is done, it will be done.”
It is Pantiel’s objective to photograph in every single one of Stockholm’s 100 metro stations* before he even considers taking a break from the project.
“I do my best to collect a fair and accurate sample”, he says. This was his response after I proposed and provoked him with the notion that some individuals may eventually label his project as biased or racist. Evan is sure someone out there will hate his work and this series, but he doesn’t seem to be too disturbed with that reality.
The process of the project is really quite simple. On days that both of their schedules allow, Pantiel and Krook go out to shoot. Like a self-proclaimed creep, Pantiel looms around and signals to Krook whom he would like for her to approach. After she has asked – in Swedish – if they would allow their image to be taken Pantiel presents himself and slithers his way into the exchange, beginning to take photos and ask the subjects about their day, where they have been or where they are going, etcetera.
“I try to relate a story of my own to lighten them up and ease the mood. Sometimes, it’s after we walk away from a 15 minute interaction that I will run back up to them and ask for one last photo. At that point, most people are comfortable enough and those tend to be the best shots.”
So far, The Sthlm Subway Portrait Series is bursting with energy and emotion, and as a photographer myself I admire how the portraits, all so similar in size and composition, still vary to a great degree. This, I guess, is where power of the portrait and personality really shine through.
I asked Evan whether he worries about the series becoming mundane.
“If it ever gets boring I will change it. The series is slowly evolving with Rosanna and I speaking more and at greater depth with the people in the portraits… I think… I hope it remains interesting. If not, I will have to make some changes.”
Until then, the only obstacles or disappointments the couple share are in wanting to spend more time with their subjects, who are usually on the run or the frustration when trying to interview someone who neither speaks Swedish nor English. “It is really disappointing because you want to talk and get to know them, but you can’t because of that language barrier. It sucks.”
Pantiel is also quick to remind me that some subjects, some Stockholmers are ‘stiff’ and that ‘you can’t win your subjects 100 percent of the time’.
In the future, Pantiel and Krook hope to gain deeper access to these ‘individual novels’ and ideally, present the collection in an exhibition and/or book. Until then, if you see a couple skulking around the tunnelbana with a camera and some questions, #justsayYES.
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* The first line opened in 1950, and today the system has 100 stations in use, of which 47 are underground and 53 above ground. There are three lines (Green, Red and Blue), going through the Stockholm City Centre. In 2013, the metro carried 328 million passengers, which corresponds to approximately 898,630 riders per day.
Read more on Evan Pantiel’s project on Get TotallyRad: http://www.gettotallyrad.com/blog/the-subway-series/
All images by Evan Pantiel. Words by daniela trujillo evb.