A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an amazing photo on Instagram. It was shot from inside a Parisian metro car, with a pair of empty seats on the left side of the frame. A large, raindrop-stained window occupied much of the right side, and on the other side of that window was the giant head of a young boy — part of a large advertisement displayed on the station wall outside. His right hand was under his chin, and his left was extended outward, E.T.-style, as if he was tapping the glass of an aquarium. His gaze was empty and forlorn, just like the metro car he was peering into.
Everything about it was perfect, so I dutifully passed it around to a few other friends. It was only later that I realized that the image was posted not by a professional photographer or internet-scraping Instagram star, but by the RATP — the state-owned operator of the Paris metro, tram, and bus services.
Intrigued, I conducted a quick audit of the RATP’s Instagram game, and determined that it is strong. Some images evoked the same sort of desolation I felt looking at that first photo — solitary figures at the end of a long walkway, the hulking, coppered tunnel at the Arts et Métiers stop. But others were more joyous, more dynamic. A man in a white bunny mask jumping in front of a metro entrance; an overhead shot of blurred commuters.
This was surprising to me because I’ve never been a huge fan of the Paris Metro. Wait times are generally shorter here than in New York, where I lived before moving here, and the average distance between stops is almost embarrassingly short. But its cramped quarters and, most noxiously, the lack of air conditioning can make even the shortest trip feel like a sardine's descent into hell.
That’s not the metro you’ll find on Instagram, and that’s entirely by design. The RATP launched its Instagram page a little more than three months ago, and has already amassed more than 17,000 followers. Cécile Riffard, head of branding at the RATP, says the organization aimed to convey a less corporate, more human side of its operations — one that puts the "luminous, pleasant" side of Paris front and center.
"The principle behind any social network is to give people what they’re looking for," Riffard said in a phone interview last week. "And on Instagram, people are looking for beautiful photos."
That stands in sharp contrast to other mass transit systems. New York’s MTA, which operates the subway, devotes most of its Instagram page to machinery — lots of dark tunnels and orange-vested workers, mixed in with the occasional PR shot from an event. Transport for London’s page is slightly more varied, but it lacks unity. Images of bicycling Londoners are interspersed with visually dull promotions or ad campaigns, and many of the images seem over-filtered.
The RATP’s page feels far more coherent. Part of that is because the organization has three full-time photographers on staff, though it occasionally reposts images from popular Instagram users across Paris. (It launched a photo competition earlier this year under the theme "the city that moves.") The RATP also regularly harvests its expansive library of archival photographs, such as a recently-posted image of people huddled around Kubrick-esque red phone booths in 1977.
A small team of employees meticulously curates the page, planning it weeks in advance, and it never feels as thirsty as other corporate accounts. The captions may be promotional at times, but the images above them are visually compelling enough to keep scrolling. And at a time when France seems to be coming apart at the seams, with widespread labor strikes, apocalyptic flooding, and the ever-present threat of terrorism and Russian hooligans, the RATP’s page feels like a visual oasis — a reminder that even amidst all the upheaval and unrest, trains and busses continue to run, and Paris continues to move.
"Instagram photos are very different from the photos I usually take," says Jean-François Mauboussin, the RATP photographer who shot the giant boy’s face that first grabbed my attention. Before the page launched, Mauboussin spent much of his time shooting photos for internal and external communications. Shooting for Instagram, he says, is a far more intuitive process.
"On Instagram, it’s more about the bizarre, the inferred," he says. "It's that small touch of love."