As I begin this project, I've gone back to one of my favorite photographers, Bruce Davidson, and his documentation of the New York City subways in the 1980s.
It was a dangerous time to be riding the subway and in his essay
about his photographic journey, he talks about reading the graffiti like Egyptian hieroglyphics and working with the darkness, both literally and figuratively, in the content of his images. I feel like I'm in conversation with him. In a place where graffiti is forbidden, I am confronted with blank walls. Where do I find the hieroglyphics in the Abu Dhabi bus station and on the buses? I am fighting over-exposure and the light, not the darkness. I am interested in documenting the private spaces created above ground, not below. My world is about the green palette of the bus station, predominantly South Asian men in monochromatic tunics and printed scarves, and the blazing sun. The people here seem tired, not angry. I see men's heads resting against the panes of buses with their eyes closed, laying on linoleum floors in hidden corners during lunch break, in the shade of trees outside a mosque, and on patches of grass on highway meridians - all asleep. For many of us here this is a landscape of work - whether it's washing high-rise windows, working in bathrooms, building hospitals, or managing the construction of the Louvre, we're here building something. We’re all trying to make meaning of our lives through labor.
The people on the NY subway seem to be using transportation in a fundamentally different way. The portraits tell us about nights out, a prom, women reading on the platform - their dresses lightly blowing in the breeze, a man angry with a gun. They speak to lives that exist outside of the frames - pasts and futures. Somehow the images at the bus station speak more about a continuum, repetition. The private lives of these people are hidden - again, where are the hieroglyphics? The paraphernalia on their bus dashboards? Photographs in their wallet? Text messages on their phones? What is the evidence of their private lives, and why is it so hard to access?
Bruce Davidson's confessions of fear while shooting are comforting. His drive to make human contact and meaning through photography trumps his insecurity and alienation. His words and process are with me as I drive down Electra Street and park my car at the bus station.
"In transforming the grim, abusive, violent, and yet often serene reality of the subway into a language of colour, I see the subway as a metaphor for the world in which we live today. From all over the earth, people come into the subway. It's a great social equalizer. As our being is exposed, we confront our mortality, contemplate our destiny, and experience both the beauty and the beast. From the moving train above ground, we see glimpses of the city, and as the trains move into the tunnels, sterile fluorescent light reaches into the stony gloom and we, trapped inside, all hang on together."
Unlike the subway, the bus station is not a great social equalizer. There are many people who have lived in Abu Dhabi for years and have never taken a bus or been to the bus station. But it is also not a metaphor for existential angst like the NY subway. The Pakistani side of the bus station in particular is an example of a public and vernacular space that has been transformed organically by men into a place of shared humanity, friendship, and prayer.