Strangers on a Train


Dina Alfasi speaks to Tanvi Dhulia about her spellbinding portraits of the people she encounters on her daily route to work in Israel.

Photograph/Dina Alfasi

Lengthy morning commutes, as most of us can testify, tend to be dreary and monotonous. For Dina Alfasi, however, they’re a source of great inspiration. Bus and train windows serve as a backdrop for her artistic expression, and her unsuspecting models are often captured in deep contemplation. “Every day I see dozens of people traveling by train or bus with me. I don’t take photos of most of them. But once I come across someone interesting, I have to feel that there is some story behind the character, something intriguing, exciting and attractive. It’s an inner and personal feeling that I find difficult to explain in words. I’m trying to convey that sentiment in the frame.” Her daily commute to her building engineering job at a hospital, includes bus and train travel, where for two hours, each day, she comes across countless new faces that, for her, spark curiosity. “At first, to pass the time, I would just observe them and try to guess where they were going or what their story might be.” Eventually, she started making pictures with her phone of fascinating scenes that caught her attention. While these photographs made on public transport appear to belong to a series, each image is meant to tell an individual story.

A Whole New World
“This project brought me many achievements and publicity all over the world. I never dreamed that my pictures would be shown in galleries in cities like Paris and New York, and that my pictures would be published in magazines.”

Her work has been displayed at the International Center of Photography, and earned her accolades in numerous contests, including the iPhone Photography Awards in 2017 and 2018, and the 2019 Mobile Photography Awards. Even today, she is amazed at the responses her images bring forth, and the kind of interactions it has allowed her to have with photography enthusiasts from around the globe. Now, the medium has become an integral part of her existence.

What’s Behind a Face?
Sunlight permeating the windows helps create the effect of a “mobile studio,” as she likes to call it, which often lends her portraits a look of serenity. “There is something both intimate and vulnerable about the way a person exists in a public space,” Alfasi mentioned, while in conversation with David Pierini from Cult of Mac. “My pictures capture something inherently familiar in each of the strangers, lost in thought on their way somewhere.”

Each day, she scans the faces of her fellow travellers to determine where she should sit, often resorting to numerous seat changes in order to get a good shot. “When the mood strikes, I might get off the bus a stop or two early, to walk around and find new, interesting places to photograph,” she mentions in an interview for Pictar World.

“Photographing people on buses and trains has taught me a lot about the depths of human complexity,” she says. It’s important for her that every image she makes can give rise to some emotion when viewed.

A keen observer, she frequently witnesses “a lot of awkward, embarrassing moments,” but chooses to portray everyone in her pictures with dignity. When asked about her evolution as a photographer, she said, “I think, over time, I learned how to shoot simpler, but much more exciting frames.” This isn’t to say that Alfasi is averse to experimentation. In fact, she doesn’t enjoy being limited to a singular style and tries to step out of her comfort zone.

Photograph/Dina Alfasi

Seeking a Sense of Wonder
This aversion to monotony has led her to utilise the cellphone in versatile ways.

She makes artful use of reflections in a number of instances, particularly in her pictures of preoccupied smokers where people are sometimes made to look like they belong in a cinematic daydream. “I do not smoke, but I like to photograph those who do. There is something very intimate about these moments. Each character with a different style and uniqueness in the way they choose to smoke.” To her, these moments are reminiscent of movie scenes. It is also worth noting that her pictures that are devoid of human faces can be just as alluring as her portraits.

For Alfasi, every detail included in the frame requires careful consideration. “I choose the photos I share very carefully and don’t rush to share them. I take dozens, sometimes hundreds of photos a day that can be deemed beautiful, but that’s not enough for me. I always look to compose a frame that has added value, narrative, emotion, and a sense of individuality.”

Keeping in mind that most of her picture-making takes place in similar settings, it is essential for her that the work remain exciting. “I always try to surprise people with what I make, and when I’m successful in doing so, the satisfaction is tremendous.” To achieve this, Alfasi strives to challenge herself regularly with different shooting conditions, and new locations. She also finds that looking at the works of others helps fuel her drive to learn and be inspired. As she honed her skills, Alfasi realised the importance of trusting her senses. “It is vital that I don’t fall into the trap of trying to please others, and instead do what feels right to me.”

Complete Honesty
“I like to take pictures in any situation that has a human element,” she told Pierini. “At first, I photographed only my son, but over time I began experimenting with street photography.” In her childhood, Alfasi found joy in making pictures with her Kodak film camera. She only bought her first digital camera after the birth of her son, in order to document his early years. A turning point was when she got her first iPhone (a 4s, at the time), which opened up numerous avenues for her in terms of photography and picture editing software. She emphasises that the iPhone is the most suitable device for her style of photography. “It’s a small, high-quality sensor that is always with me, and easy to access.”

“Most of my pictures made on public transport wouldn’t be possible to achieve if I were using a regular camera. The cellphone allows me to take photos quickly and without drawing attention to myself.” For Dina Alfasi, being discreet is the only way to record moments that lay bare a sense of authenticity in a person. She is persistent in this search for a grain of truth behind the eyes of these musing strangers, and therein lies the magic in her frames.

Dina Alfasi is a photographer and engineer based in Israel. She is known for her striking portraits of commuters encountered on her way to work, captured with a cellphone. Besides making pictures of all the things that enamour her, Dina likes to travel, bake, and spend time with her beloved family. You can follow her work on Instagram @dinalf.

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Better Photography.