Just a Stranger on a Metro

Montreal Photographer Captures Unique Portraits of Montrealers at Their Metro Stations

Mylène Marquis posed at Namur Metro for photographer Mathieu Murphy-Perron’s portrait series, Mon métro. Photo Mathieu Murphy-Perron
Writer/researcher Clay Nikiforuk, shown here at Laurier station, moved to Montreal from B.C. in February. Photo Mathieu Murphy-Perron
Letitia Brookes, seen here at Côte Sainte-Catherine Metro, recently made her stage debut. Photo Mathieu Murphy-Perron
Concordia Studio Art major Mariana Stabile’s first stop on her way to school or work is Lionel-Groulx station. Photo Mathieu Murphy-Perron

In the rush-hour scramble to beat the blue-and-white sliding doors, the aesthetics of the metro are the last thing on the average commuter’s mind.

But they’re exactly what Montreal photographer and Concordia graduate Mathieu Murphy-Perron has been thinking about for the past eight months and counting.

With his latest project, Mon métro, he hopes to portray the beauty of the metro system—not only its artwork, which is already well known, but more importantly its passengers.

“My objective is to see the faces of our transit system. Know their stories. Discover their neighbourhoods,” he said. “The people are the pulse of the metro. Mon métro is a visual diary of our mouvement collectif through Montreal.”

Since April, he’s been taking pictures of strangers in and outside the metro station they most often use. His goal is to photograph one person at each of Montreal’s 68 stops. So far, he’s completed 16 portraits, mostly in his own Sud-Ouest neighbourhood and the Plateau.

For each of his subjects, he adds a short profile, including their occupation and interests, as well as a few remarks on the shoot. Each vignette is a window into the life of one of the 895,000 passengers who squeeze onto a metro car each day.

At the Côte Sainte-Catherine metro station, he introduces us to Letitia Brookes, 32, a Concordia theatre student who took a five-year break from university to work at an accounting firm before finally making her stage debut last month in a hip-hop musical.

In another photograph, at nexus station Lionel-Groulx, born-and-bred Montrealer and Concordia studio art major Mariana Stabile, 22, is shown looking up and smiling from a hexagonal-tiled floor the colour of ketchup and mustard.

She found out about the project through word-of-mouth and contacted Murphy-Perron on Facebook.

“I thought it was a really great mapping project. It really talks about the city of Montreal,” she said.

In some ways, Murphy-Perron’s portrait series recalls the popular photo blog “Humans of New York,” started in New York City in 2010. However, the real inspiration for Mon métro came from a routine ride to Concordia on the 165 bus.

“I was looking at two individuals sitting next to each other on the bus and seeing how it was a really public space but they were really private at the same time,” he said. “I took a quick shot, uploaded it to Instagram and hashtagged it #strangersintransit.”

The first picture that photographer Murphy-Perron took with the hashtag #strangersintransit. Photo Mathieu Murphy-Perron

Today, #strangersintransit has exploded to include about 24,000 photos. Murphy-Perron also curates a Tumblr blog of the same name with a collection of 1,200 pictures and climbing, although it’s down at the moment for maintenance.

After snapping a picture of a couple of strangers on the bus, Murphy-Perron’s fascination with public transit in Montreal and around the world grew.

“I love the subway in New York City,” he said. “But I find all the stations sort of bleed into each other, and there’s a sort of greyness to them. Montreal’s metro is full of colourful pop art—and some absurdly ambitious sculptures at times,” he continued, mentioning Germain Bergeron’s massive Pic et Pelle piece at Monk metro station.

Situated on the walkway above the metro tracks, the sculpture features two giant steel stick figures plugging away at the floor with a pickaxe and shovel. An homage to the construction workers who built the metro, the piece is a take on the Québécois expression travailler au pic et à la pelle, meaning to work long and hard.

The Montreal metro is home to 85 art projects in all. This year, the Société de transport de Montréal restored four artworks, including the stainless-steel mural at LaSalle metro station.

Murphy-Perron hopes to foster an appreciation for the metro’s art and architecture—and Mon métro is already having a positive effect.

“Each participant has said, as we’re taking the photos and especially as we come out, ‘Well, actually I take this station every day and I hadn’t noticed how awesome it is,’” he said.

Murphy-Perron said he expects to be finished with the remaining 52 portraits in the next year or so. When the project is complete, he said he’ll try to turn it into a book—if he can get away with it. Murphy-Perron said shooting photos in the metro is against the rules, so he’ll need permission from the STM if he decides to publish his collection.

“Once there’s more traction to it I’m hoping to contact the STM and say, ‘Hey, this is what I have so far. I’d really like to continue,’” he said.

A spokesperson for the STM, Benoît Clairoux, confirmed that photography in the metro is usually forbidden, except under some conditions. Those who want to take photos in the metro must apply online for a permit.

“For metrophiles, we can come to agreement […] but he will eventually have to contact the STM to make sure we’re on the same page,” he said.

As for Mon métro, Clairoux said that the project was already on the STM’s radar. “ C’est sympathique,” he said. “It shows that the metro is more than just a means of transportation.”

Correction: The Link originally reported that Letitia Brookes was photographed at Côte-des-Neiges when she was in fact at Côte Sainte-Catherine. The hashtag #strangersintransit actually includes 24,000 photos, not 4,000 as stated in an earlier version of this article. The Link regrets the errors.