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December 3, 2021



Photography and words by Robert Sherman
Introduction by Melanie Meggs

Robert Sherman, born in Chicago, but now based in New York City, is both a photographer and a musician and composer. He developed a pure passion for the art of photography and ended up becoming the staff photographer for the Fire Island newspaper. Of late he has also become a columnist for them and manages their social media account. In this personal project, Robert Sherman captures the everyday life of train conductors and the important job they do on the New York MTA Subway.


A few years ago, as I exited the middle car on one particularly relaxed subway ride, I noticed a conductor open her window and stick her arm out and point up to the ceiling for what seemed like no particular reason. I thought to myself, what a lovely gesture of reverence and reverie! But it turns out it was neither, as I discovered by asking the next one I saw later that week.

It is actually a required action taken by the 'middleman' conductor at every subway stop. Its purpose is twofold: it shows the roaming MTA platform inspectors that the conductors are alert and paying attention to their job, and, more importantly, they are pointing at a (previously unnoticed by me) zebra striped sign set in the exact center of each platform. This indicates to the watchful eyes of the conductor up front that it is safe to open the doors. This, in turn, protects the passengers from stepping out directly onto the tracks had the train not been aligned properly at the stop.

It is a beautiful example of man and machine working in harmony. There may be the technology to do all of this automatically, yet it remains the chosen way to keep this charmingly human engagement alive and well.

The zebra signs first appeared as general markers between every two cars around WW1, and the gesture itself originated in Japan, where it was being used for the same purpose, although more elaborately - including voice signals, and the turning of an complex set of switches. It is referred to there as shisa kanko.

The MTA adopted and mandated this ritualistic action in the late 1990s after a number of incidents where passengers fell onto the tracks. And the new system has helped quite a bit in preventing that from happening ever since.

At any rate, I still choose to see it as simply a beautiful gesture, one that connects me to the perhaps previously unacknowledged, hard working individuals who help as many as six million riders arrive safely to their destinations each and every day.

So, I set out to make a series of portraits in celebration of these conductors. We see them all the time, but perhaps we forget to look. With these images I hope that maybe we can now fall just a little bit in love with them, as well. I know I have.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.


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