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Alone, Together

B.D. Colen

The 20th century writer, Thomas Wolfe, warned us that we "can't go home again." He wrote, "the whole conviction of (his) life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

The reality of Wolf's observation ironically may be best observed in the midst of a crowd, for nowhere do individuals often seem more isolated, seem to appear more lonely than they do when surrounded by their fellow human beings.

For the past decade I have been documenting this phenomenon in the subway cars of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, where every day tens of thousands of riders, of all ages, races, and social strata, are packed in, Alone, Together.

When I began this project, I had no preconceptions. I simply wanted to make compelling images. Yet the longer I've photographed my fellow "T" riders, the more the concept of isolation in a crowd has taken over the work. Individually, in twos and threes, and even in larger groups, those crammed into often distressingly close proximity to complete strangers seem unaware of the presence of others.

Some of this undoubtedly has to do with the wearing of headphones, the focus on reading materials, or simply the need to doze at the too-early beginning, or late ending of a demanding day. I have to wonder, however, whether absorption in books, with iDevices, newspapers, or napping, isolates individuals unintentionally, or are these points of focus walls behind which people quite knowingly barricade themselves?