Are Facebook friends really your friends? Does the way we communicate with friends — texting, instant messaging, Skyping, or just seeing them in person — make a friendship mean any more or less? These are some of the questions photographer Tanja Hollander had on her mind when she undertook a photo project that found her traveling with the purpose of personally meeting with all her Facebook friends and taking formal portraits of them and their families. Her effort has paid off and now she has a deadline to finish the work, after reaching an agreement with Mass MoCA to exhibit the work there when it is done, titled “Are You Really My Friend?”
The Maine resident began the project in 2011 and has shown early versions of it in various places. Striking up a partnership with Mass MoCA has energized Hollander and guaranteed that the work will be completed. The plan is to show the entire project for the first time at Mass MoCA in 2017, featuring not just Hollander’s photos, but videos and other elements of her travels.
J7: How did the Mass MoCA involvement happen?
TH: It’s kind of a funny story. In 2013, I started driving across the country to photograph. When I would stop, I would try to set-up lectures at schools to help fund it. I often get asked questions like, “How do you see this finishing?” or “When you get done, what are you going to do?” I was constantly saying that I want to have a show at Mass MoCA because it’s my favorite museum in the country, and the space is big enough to show the entire body of work, and it has such a nice feeling to it. It doesn’t feel institutional in the way most museums do. I was saying this over and over and over again. Then I was driving back to the east coast, and I thought, I should just tell Mass MoCA that. I had been telling everyone else but them.
Denise Markonish had curated me in group shows years and years ago, so I knew her and had her email address, so I just sent her and email and said, look, I’m on my way back to Maine, I’m driving through North Adams, I was going to stop by the museum anyway. I have work with me, so if you have time, do you want to meet? She said sure. So, we had this great meeting and she was really excited about the work and then I followed up with her a couple months later and she said, let’s do something. It was one of those weird serendipity things. Shows don’t usually happen that easily.
J7: You’ve said that, before you began this project, you had taken some time to give thought to the nature of friendships, spurred on by a moment where you found yourself writing a handwritten letter to one friend and instant messaging with another. What sort of things were you thinking?
TH: It’s really evolved and I think that every time I do a major trip, I learn something new, but in the beginning, I was really interested in how we communicate now, and how that’s changed our relationships and definitions of friendship. The handwritten letter that I was writing versus the instant message, was one more “real” than the other? Texting versus phone call, email versus texting, all of the different ways we communicate with technology, and how that’s affecting our relationships.
I think that’s what I was thinking about in the beginning, but I think what I’ve learned is that there are so many different kinds of friendships and it’s not like 6th where your best friend is the friend you go to school with, go to the movies with, stay up all night with. When you’re an adult, you have friends that you have dinner with, other friends that you go to the museum with, other friends that you see music with. It’s not all one person anymore.
J7: The odd thing when you’re talking context of friends on Facebook, and I’m sure this is something a lot of people have encountered, is when you have one type of friend and another type of friend, and they never encounter each other in real life, but suddenly discuss something on your Facebook wall. It takes that concept you mention and mixes it up a bit.
TH: Yeah, you know what’s interesting is that I’ve become friends with people on Facebook because of our commenting on threads. So somebody posts a link and then you say something, and then somebody else says something, and then you have this back and forth with the other person. Usually it’s really exciting and then you become friends. I thought about some of those people. and I enjoyed them just as much in real life as I did on this thread where we met.
J7: Do you think that when you have friends on Facebook as an adult, they still fall into the different types of friends categorizing, or do you think it all blends into one category?
TH: I have my friends on Facebook who are my political friends and my music friends, my photo friends. I don’t think there’s a real difference between those kinds of relationships in the analog. It’s how much energy you put into them, to me, is what takes it to a different level.
J7: Prior to picking up this project, did you have certain Facebook friends who you didn’t know in real life, but decided to go meet?
TH: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s the nature of my personality. I’m definitely someone who connects with other people, puts people in touch. I am definitely the kind of person who reaches out. Before I started this, if I was Facebook friends with somebody I’d never met and I was going to LA and I would let them know and absolutely send them a message.
J7: At that point it seems like you’ve gone through some vetting as to whether you’d actually get along with the person, so I’m guessing you didn’t have any disastrous meet-ups.
TH: No, not really.
J7: That may be one of the strengths of making friends through Facebook. It’s not circumstance-based randomness where you’re working in the same place, but you’re given a chance to feel out other people and know how you know them, and fine tune your connection and rappot.
TH: Yes, absolutely.
J7: At what point did it become the project become real and more than a thought?
TH: I was thinking about the idea on New Year’s Eve of 2010, so going into 2011, and I spent the next couple months doing research — photographers who travel, photographers who work in social media, artists who work in social media, family photographers, just trying to cover all the bases. And then I made a spreadsheet. I had to go profile by profile, because you can’t export data from Facebook. So I made a spreadsheet of all my Facebook friends, where they lived, and their email addresses, and then I sent out a mass email thing that said what I was going to do. This was the end of February that I did this. I started with the people who responded and seemed excited about the work.
J7: When you went into a living space, whether you knew them in real life or not, what were you hoping to capture?
TH: I really wanted a sense of place. Place like, the things that people surround themselves with, because I think that tells so much about the person. When I started, I was interested in how we create community and how we create home, and community being anything from the people we surround ourselves with to the things to the places in which we live, neighborhoods — the contemporary culture aspect of it.
J7: Were there any that you went to that finding out their context in real life was an eye opener for you?
TH: Not really. There are all these alarmist headlines that people hide on Facebook, that they curate, and they do this and that, and it’s really not true. Some people are more private on Facebook, like there aren’t pictures of their house or their kids or whatever. Some people are more careful for work reasons with what they put online. On the whole, I wasn’t really surprised by much when I actually arrived at somebody’s house.
J7: Getting to know people in their personal space rather than their Facebook space must have brought to light some aspects of them that you hadn’t known before.
TH: The people that I haven’t met in real life have almost been more — well, I don’t want to say more generous than my real friends, but they seem to go out of their way to welcome me, and I’m continually surprised by that. Again, it goes back to the different kinds of friendships. There are some people that even though I haven’t met them in real life, but they’re a colleague, I’ve been following their work for, say, 10 years, so I feel like I know them on a certain level, we communicated via email or via message or back and forth on some threads or whatever, you have a sense of who they are. Other people who I met I didn’t have that relationship with.
In the same way, there people in real life that you talk to on a regular basis and there are people in real life that you know that you talk to every six months. So there are different levels, and again, that’s why I think it’s more about engagement than it is about method of communication or method of friendship.
J7: In quite a few cases, you’re visiting your Facebook friend, but there is also a spouse or partner or kids, which expands your perception of these people.
TH: Absolutely. And it’s also really interesting which spouses will participate and which ones won’t. I’ve found that it’s more common for a wife or a girlfriend to not want to be a part of it if I’m friends with the husband. That’s not 100% across the board. It’s generally easier scheduling with women than it is with men. Scheduling takes up more time than anything else in this project. In cities, I’m trying to do multiple people at a time, so it becomes a logistical nightmare. — and then if there are kids involved, and school, and after school activities and all that stuff. Because a lot of times people want all their whole family and dogs and everything, because it’s the first time a formal portrait has ever been done of them.
Usually if I can get in touch with the female of the household, the wife or whatever, it’s usually one or two emails back and forth, and it’s done, but if it’s the husband, it’s a long, drawn out process. It’s either that or they think that they’ve confirmed. They’re like “yeah, sure,” but there’s no, “okay, I’ll see you on this day at this time.” It’s very interesting. Again that’s not 100%, but I would definitely use that as a generalization.
J7: Do you find anything new or surprising about the person in context of their kids?
TH: I’ve learned a lot about families, let’s put it that way.
J7: What ages of kids have you dealt with?
TH: Anything from babies to teenagers.
J7: How did teenagers usually react?
TH: I don’t know if I can generalize with them the same way I generalize about the parents. There are some that are really into it. I think my best age group is six to nine, as far as them being really intrigued. Many haven’t seen a film camera before. And they know I’m an adult, but not really a parent. When I play with them, I have a digital point and shoot that’s my rough and tumble camera that I let kids play with, so I actually have a great collection of images and movies that kids have made, which I need some time to figure out how to incorporate.
Some of them are on Instagram, and they’ll follow or I’ll follow them. I think I’m very different from their usual audience. Some kids have made me things for the road. It’s been a really great experience.
J7: You’re connecting with kids for the most part, and that’s interesting, because even when people share stuff about their kids, you don’t know their kids themselves, you just know their kids through their eyes. It’s like finding out a whole aspect of your friend’s personality that you could never really know online.
TH: Absolutely. I played Legos and Minecraft. I think it would be really cool for us to have something for the kids that I designed or photographed for the exhibition. I want to incorporate that kind of relationship as well.
J7: Among the married couples, are you generally friends with both spouses?
TH: I’m friends with both more locally, and then older friends that I’ve been to their weddings and stuff. Definitely not professionally or high school type friends. But I generally become friends with them after I’ve stayed with them, so my friend list has gone up quite a bit with spouses and kids.
J7: It seems like everyone has the story of a high school person who friended them and it turns out they are political polar opposites and won’t be quiet about it and it becomes a problem. Has that happened to you?
TH: Yes and no. I haven’t photographed any super polar opposite people yet, but I also don’t have a problem defriending people and never have.
J7: So any polar opposites you are still friends with are probably manageable ones.
TH: Yeah. I only unfriend for really offensive stuff. I like to have a mix of points of view on my feed. I think like most people, it usually comes down to politics.
J7: Or religion, sometimes.
TH: I guess I consider religion to be politics, but yeah, you’re right!
J7: A lot of the initial focus on the work you’ve already done seems to be about what the photos say about your friends, but I’m curious what you think the photos say about you, since you’re the point that connects all of them.
TH: I think that there’s a sense throughout them that they’re produced pretty similarly. I try to get natural light in front of windows and with as many cool things in the house as possible, so there’s definitely a style of shooting that runs through them all. I think for me it’s about exploring how we’re all living and creating lives, and I’m really curious about that. I love going to the middle of nowhere and seeing somebody doing this really cool thing, or in this fantastic house. Living on the east coast you’re so centric that you’re convinced cool shit only happens in Boston and New York.
J7: And there are details that you just can’t get from someone’s Facebook feed. Everyone has a whole back log of life behind them that never comes through.
TH: That’s the greatest thing I’ve discovered. And I’ve always been curious about stuff. Through this, and doing it on such a focused and extreme level, I’ve learned about so many different things, all over the place. Now my curiosity is 10 times what it was before.
J7: What is your general plan for the next two years?
TH: I hope to finish photographing by the end of 2015, and then spend the first half of 2016 designing and doing the proposal for the book that will accompany the exhibition. With the book, I really want to be able for it to exhibit itself, as well as the online presence. So design for the first half and then the second half will just be production, printing everything, building websites and all that. Beginning 2017 until the opening will be framing and all the logistical stuff for Mass MoCA.
J7: Do you have a cut-off of people you know on Facebook that you’ll photograph?
TH: Yes, I have a cut-off.
J7: So if I go to Facebook right now and friend you, will you be obligated to come to my house and photograph my family?
TH: No. I cut off when I made my first spreadsheet. But if I’m at your house anyway, I’ll probably do your portrait. I’ve made new friends that are now close friends since that time. If I’m with my camera, I will photograph them. I want this to end. As much fun as I’m having, I want this to end.
J7: One thing your project made me think of is when you meet people who get angry or irritable about Facebook and say they don’t need that waste of time in their life. But isn’t the idea that time spent on Facebook is time with your friends? And one of the byproducts of your project is pointing that out to the person who says that.
TH: Yes. I completely agree. I really make much more of an effort, since I’ve started, to also nurture real life relationships. Like I said in my TED Talk, don’t make excuses anymore about not seeing someone in person. I’m the person who follows up, when you say let’s grab a cup of coffee, I say how about next Thursday. And I’m much more that way because of this, because I’ve had so many great real life experiences by making a little extra effort.