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Focus on how smartphones have transformed a ride on city Metro
By Ma Yue

MODERN transport meets modern communications in a new book published by a professional photographer who recorded four years of passengers and their mobile devices in trains on 14 Shanghai Metro lines.

Zhu Gang spurned his usual professional equipment and, like his subjects, used a mobile phone to capture what he calls “a period of history of Shanghai Metro commuters.”

His book, entitled “Metro Phone,” contains 150 photos and was published in June.

“The use of portable devices, especially smartphones, has become a phenomenon in the Metro network,” Zhu said. “Just look around. More than half of passengers on a train are burying their heads in their phones.”

Zhu divided his pictorial history into 16 themes — a number reflecting the number of Metro lines in Shanghai, though lines 14 and 15 won’t be fully operational for another five years.

The themes cover activities such as passengers sharing games, music and pictures on phones and tablets, passengers using their mobile devices for office work, and passengers eating and drinking en route without taking their eyes from their phones.

“Eating and drinking inside Metro carriages is no longer a common sight since a food ban on trains began this year,” Zhu said. “Some of the phone models also have been discontinued by now. Thus, some of the scenes I have captured already have become history, even though the pictures are only three or four years old.”

Zhu got the idea of training his photographic eye on smartphone users in the Metro at the end of 2010, about the time when smartphones were becoming common in Shanghai.

“People are moving with Metro trains when their minds are actually with whatever is on their electronic devices,” Zhu said. “Metro travelers are addicted to smartphones, and that’s why I was attracted to them. When they play with their phones, I use mine to take pictures of them.”

Fleeting moments

The cellphone, he said, is excellent for capturing fleeting moments stealthily, even it doesn’t produce the same high quality of photograph.

“People tend to seem unnatural in front of a camera,” he said. “With a phone, I can capture the most relaxed facial expressions.”

Zhu said not a single Metro commuter has ever balked at his photo-taking.

“Most of them didn’t seem to notice,” he said. “Others just dismissed my activity. For that, I consider myself lucky.”

Zhu said he changed phones three times during the four-year period. In 2010, he used a clamshell LG phone with a camera of 3 million pixels. Now, he uses a Motorola with a camera of 13 million pixels.

“I’ve witnessed a lot of changes over the years, and the main impression I am left with is that the pace of life has speeded up,” he said. “More passengers talk about business on their phones or use their laptops for office work. More foreign passengers have started using cellphones. Also, Metro travelers tend to be better mannered than in the past. A lot of commuters will avoid talking loudly on phones, and few leave litter in carriages.”

His project required him to spend many hours on trains.

“In the early stages, I would walk through a Metro train from the first carriage to the last to look specifically for phone users,” he said. “Then I found that it was largely a matter of luck. Sometimes I could manage to get a lot of interesting pictures in a day; sometimes there was nothing at all.”

Zhu still remember the day when Shanghai’s first Metro train on its first Metro line held a test run between Xujiahui and Jinjiang Park stations. That was January 10, 1993.

“In 20 years, I’ve have witnessed the expansion of the city’s Metro system,” Zhu said. “I am sure the pictures I took will be much more interesting to look at in 10 or 20 years time. This is part of Shanghai’s history.”

The project cost him the equivalent of one year’s income, and he reckons it was worth every penny.

“I bow to every citizen I captured in my book,” he said. “Their stories are the stories of Shanghai.”

“Metro Phone” is published by Zhejiang Photography Press and costs 198 yuan (US$32).

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