a new, confrontational art project brings activists to crowded subway cars

The 'Unmuted' series is bringing activists like Ebonee Davis and Iskra Lawrence underground (literally) to confront issues facing New Yorkers.

by i-D Staff
13 December 2016, 3:30pm

On November 9th, photographer Alexandra Gavillet went about her day trying to preserve as much integrity as possible in the wake of a surprising election outcome. But as she walked around New York City (where 90% of the electorate voted Hillary), she perceived terror and fear encrypted on the faces of pedestrians and deadening quiet in public spaces. As a reaction to the silent fear she felt that day, she created #Unmuted, a video series where individuals from different industries discuss topics ranging from race to disabilities in the New York City subway. The guerilla happenings highlight the accidental communities we enter every day, and open a meaningful dialogue where there is usually little beyond "Excuse me" (if that). At the intersection of illuminating and awkward, the moments -- which are filmed -- bring realness to the workaday commute. In one talk, Iskra Lawrence strips down to her underwear and soulfully addresses body image to a subway car that breaks into unanimous applause after politely letting her finish. In another, model and activist Ebonee Davis gives an impassioned plea for equality. Gavillet tells us about the inspiration behind her much-needed intervention.

How did the #Unmuted project come about?
I was coming back from a meeting at an ad agency the day after the election. Everyone was crying at the office watching Clinton's concession speech. I went into the subway. No one was talking. We know how New York City is. This wasn't our decision. I never felt so universally connected to people I didn't know. Everyone in New York was crying! We need people with strong voices to go up there and help us feel like we're not alone. This is where #Unmuted needs to happen. New York needs to have its subway therapy.

What drew you to film as a medium?
When I first started as a photographer, I wanted to make people look "cool." When you go on Instagram now, what are people doing? They're trying to make themselves look "cool." But when I shoot people in their own environment, being authentic with themselves, that's when I get the best reaction from my viewers. I want to humanize artists and models with #Unmuted. In this series, I'm letting them speak.

How do you go about picking the people in the videos?
That's where [producer] Natasha [Garoosi] came in. She was shooting Ebonee Davis and other influencers. I thought, we need to get her down into the subway and have her speak. I was nervous at first because I didn't know whether Ebonee knew what she was going to say, or if she would even be comfortable speaking to strangers. But every single person we're working with refuses to be told what to say. Everyone just knows. And when they do it, they're shaking with passion.

Then, there's Iskra Lawrence. She's part of National Eating Disorders Association and gives speeches all around the world about body positivity. She texted me about wanting to be part of #Unmuted. We shot it the next morning. I've never been this passionate about something like this before. Natasha, Wendy, and I all go down into the subway with our talent. We shoot it, and then run to my apartment to edit and put it out into the world.

Where do you see the project going? What are you hoping for?
You know how people loved Cash Cab? I want people to get on the subway hoping to be in an #Unmuted subway car. I want to take it Hong Kong and London. I want to take it all over the world, and have people in each country speak in their subway car/tubes/trains, etc.

Do you think the issues you are bringing up here in America translate internationally?
We've gotten calls from Italy, Germany, England, and Australia within five days of Iskra's video going viral. It got a lot of American press but it got amazing press internationally. The issues we bring up aren't just issues Americans have. They're issues all of us struggle with as human beings. We need to be reminded that we're all the same.

As you travel with the project, are you interested in addressing the political or social problems of the countries you visit?
I don't want #Unmuted to be political because I want it to be about people. At the end of the day, people have different politics. But you can't deny the fact that all of us have the same feelings. What Ebonee said: "Recognize there's no difference between you and the person you're sitting next to. They hurt the same way you hurt, they bleed the same blood that you bleed, and they feel the same way you feel." You can't deny that. It's about bringing total strangers together through the open conversations we should be having not only with our circles, but also with people we may never see again. Making strangers less strange.  


Text Michael Valinsky

New York
election 2016
body image
iskra lawrence
ebonee davis
alexandra gavillet