A lot is happening on trains right now, observes Portland-based cartoonist Seth Thomas, in his undertaking to make some human sense of the cluttered image library of the mediasphere. Trains crash in India, black women are evicted from a wine tour in California, civilians disarm a gunman in France, and the struggles of thousands of refugees attempting to reach Western Europe continue.
Thomas extracts and compiles images, as if archiving them with an arbitrary classification system: these ones tagged things that happened on trains this summer. This re-contextualization allows their juxtaposition to speak new volumes about how such images are presented and consumed.
His drawings politely demand that we account for the varying levels of humanity and excess that comprise media coverage of the range of social and political interactions that have happened to take place on trains. The standard tags—heroism, racial tension, tragedy—code their public meaning and significance, and often, their entertainment value. Thomas takes pause to this drama, showing empty tracks where we may imagine, but need not see, the desperate struggle of a family resisting detainment. His interpretations of these visual events question the ethics of representation and explore the potential profundity of omission.
Through meditation on these images, we can revisit their stories with a bit more compassion and a touch of measured skepticism. We can also remember that many trains are classed, and that the opposite of inclusion is exclusion. But through the enormous complexity of transit systems and the populations they carry, there are signs of people changing their times—a translated map says, what’s mine is yours.
Seth Thomas lives in Portland, Ore. He recently completed his undergraduate studies at Portland State University, where he majored in Arabic and International Studies with a Middle East focus. You can find more of his writing, videos and drawings on his blog, mishkida.tumblr.com