Are You Really My Friends?
On New Year’s Eve of 2010, I found myself sitting at my kitchen table, simultaneously writing a letter in pencil to a friend deployed in Afghanistan and instant messaging on Facebook with a friend making a film in Jakarta. I woke up in 2011 thinking a lot about friendship and relationships as well as how we communicate with one another in the 21st century. on one hand, the letter has a tangibility that makes it seem more genuine and real; on the other hand, social networks provide an immediate way to be part of people’s lives all over the world.
For the next couple of months, I started to analyze my use of Facebook and the “friends” I had accumulated in this online world. What I found were some people I hadn’t met in person, a few people I was no longer speaking to in “real life,” ex-lovers with new partners, ex-partners of friends, art dealers, curators and high school friends who I hadn’t seen in over 20 years.
I began to wonder: am I really friends with all these people?
In February of that same year, I set out to find the answer using the only tool I know: photography. I decided to visit every one of my Facebook “friends” in their homes and make their formal portrait. To find the time and money for the project, I quit one of my jobs, started writing grants, and crowd fundraising. Not long after, “Are you really my friend? The Facebook Portrait Project” was born.
In the last eight months, I have raised almost $20,000, completed over 100 portraits, photographed 163 Facebook “friends,” visited eleven states across the country and nearly fifty cities and towns. I have traveled by plane, train, subway, bus, car, bike, and on foot.
I continue to be surprised by the number of people—especially (the real life) total strangers—who have opened their homes to me: sharing their lives, their stories, their food, their gardens, and their families while allowing my camera to document it. What started out as a personal documentary on friendship and environmental portraiture has turned into an exploration of American culture, relationships, generosity & compassion, family structure, community building, story telling, meal sharing, technology & travel in the 21st century, social networking, memory, and the history of the portrait.
When embarking upon this project, I made a conscious decision to travel lightly and unobtrusively with only two cameras (a digital point & shoot and a film version) and a tripod. I also committed to shooting in each friend’s home with only available light. once I’ve taken a portrait, I then process the film, scan it, and put it online as quickly as I can. along the way, I have crawled on kitchen floors, played Legos and read books with children I just met, admired chickens and prize roosters, shared a bowl of gumbo in New orleans (with a friend I hadn’t met in real life), toured the West Wing, and listened to stories of family tragedy and strength. I have also learned how people live and create home.
One could argue that family portraits are cultural artifacts, telling a story about the lives of their subjects. I am taking that one step further by making the portraits in their homes, exploring the intimacy of an environment that also tells a story.
The art of portraiture has its roots in aristocracy. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, commissioning an artist to create a portrait was an expensive, time-consuming, and formal process. This luxury therefore became symbolic of power and wealth. However, by the mid-19th century, technological advances made cameras more widely affordable, and with that, family portraits became a part of everyday life for many people. As it did, the formality of the portrait decreased. With the ease of camera phones and the evolution of photography, the portrait has become more widespread and increasingly casual.
Tanja Hollander was born in St. Louis, MO in 1972 and returned to the state after receiving a B.A. in photography, film, and feminist studies in 1994 from Hampshire College. Her work has been exhibited nationally at galleries in New York City and Boston and has twice been selected for the Portland Museum of Art Biennial, winning a purchase prize in 2007. She has also exhibited at the Bernard Toale Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts; Whitney Art Works in Portland, Maine; and Jim Kempner Fine Art in NYC. In 1994 Hollander opened and directed Dead Space Gallery, Portland’s first art venue for local art, music, spoken word, and performance. Hollander founded and became the volunteer director of the Bakery Photographic Collective in 2001, a nonprofit member based darkroom facility in Westbrook, Maine. In 2009, she was nominated and chosen for a month long residency at the La Napoule art foundation in La Napoule, France. Hollander is represented by Carroll and Sons in Boston, Massachusetts and Jim Kempner in New York City. She is a resident of Auburn, Maine.