July 2013 - updated statement (#4)

I.  The very beginning: December 2010-February 2011

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 on Facebook, instant messaging a friend working on a film in Jakarta.   I woke up in 2011, thinking a lot about friendship and relationships, and how we communicate with one another on and off-line.   On one hand, the letter has a tangibility that makes it seem more genuine and real, while 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 began to research and analyze the internet as well as my own use of Facebook and the “friends” I had accumulated. What I found were some people I hadn’t met in “real life”; a few people I was not 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 twenty years.  I asked myself,  “am I really friends with all these people?”  

I became interested in the intersection of art, photography, social media and global travel both virtually and in real life.   At the end of February 2011, 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 (626) and make their formal portrait.  I made a conscious decision to travel lightly and unobtrusively, with a digital point & shoot, a film camera and a tripod, and to shoot in each home with only available light.  

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 was therefore exclusive of and became symbolic of power and wealth.  By the mid-19th century technological advances made cameras more widely affordable, and with that, family portraits became a part of everyday life for the vast majority.  With the ease and popularity of family photography into the 20th century, the formal nature of portraits diminished.  The traditional family portrait has begun to disappear.   By the end of the 1990’s digital cameras were replacing film cameras and on
June 29, 2007 the iPhone launched and on July 10, 2008 Facebook launched their app which would change the way we look at portraits forever.  Social Media now joins the portrait as a cultural artifact -- telling a story about the lives of the subjects.

“As American a picture - the faces don't editorialize or criticize or say anything but ‘This is the way we are in real life and if you don't like it I don't know anything about it 'cause I'm living my own life my way…’”- Jack Kerouc in the introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans

Social media has become a fundamental part of our society in the 21st century.  Its convenience allows us to instantaneously communicate and share a level of intimacy with those we know well and many we don’t know at all. Despite its presence, social networks cannot replicate human interaction. It is arguable, however, that the online environments we’ve created and the resulting reduction of human interaction has an impact on our relationships. We simultaneously live in a virtual social network space online while physically inhabiting the space of our home in the real world.  My project is an exploration of friendships, the effects of social networks, the intimate places we call home and the communities in which we live.  Though we are in the initial stages of understanding the affects of social networking on culture and photography there is a pervasive feeling that it is changing our interactions with each other and building a false sense of community. MIT technology and society specialist, Sherry Turkle suggests in her book Alone Together:

“There are no simple answers as to whether the Net is a place to be deliberate, to commit to life, and live without resignation…When Thoreau considered “where I live and what I live for,” he tied together location and values.  Where we live doesn’t just change how we live; it transforms who we become. Most recently, technology promises us lives on the screen. What values, Thoreau would ask, follow from this new location?  Immersed in simulation, where do we live, and what do we live for?”

While social networking is a large part of most people’s daily lives, I am finding it is not a substitute to real life relationships, but rather an enhancement of already existing connections that are built online.  What started out as a personal documentary on friendship and environmental portraiture has turned into an exploration of American culture and community building both on and off-line.   I have found with a little bit of effort a tenuous online relationship can turn into a close friendship.  The Pew Research Center’s Pew Internet& American Life Project’s 2011 study on Social Networking Sites and Our Lives found:

“…there is little validity to concerns that people who use SNS experience smaller social networks, less closeness, or are exposed to less diversity…

However, total network size may not be as important as other factors – such as intimacy. Americans have more close social ties than they did two years ago. And they are less socially isolated. We found that the frequent use of Facebook is associated with having more overall close ties.”

II.  The first lessons learned – March 2011-September 2012

When I began this project, I approached it from a fine art photography background, assuming a collection of formal portraits was the end goal.   I was a naïve user of Facebook and social networking sites.   However, as I spend more time online and travelling – this body of work is in a constant state of flux as I navigate into the dynamics of interpersonal relationships and community.  I have become convinced that the process of observing and documenting how we live and create community is as important as the finished piece.  Even though I have visited almost two hundred homes, every time I arrive at a friend’s house it is a new, culturally rich experience. 

I have also learned that this project is a real collaboration between my Facebook friends and me.  The project also lends it self to collaboration with the audience through social media, the real life exhibitions I have designed, and formal lectures.  I find myself connecting with professionals, sociologists, journalists, scholars and students across many disciplines exploring relationships in social media and photography. 

I have been learning about myself through this process as well.  I have crawled on the floor to play legos and read books with children I just met.  I have been shown urban gardens, admired chickens and prize roosters.  I saw a bee sanctuary being built in North St. Louis as part of an urban beautification project.  I took part in a dance festival on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  I shared a bowl of gumbo in New Orleans with a friend I hadn’t met in real life.   In Washington DC, I toured the West Wing with a friend who was a staff photographer for President Obama.  I have listened to stories of family tragedy and strength, and the difficulties of surviving in this economic climate – especially for artists.

Most importantly, I have learned about human kindness and compassion.    I continue to be surprised by the number of people, especially (the real life) total strangers, who have opened their homes to me – offering me a place to stay, sharing their lives, their stories, their food, and their families while allowing my camera to document it all.  I have meticulously blogged about my adventures, creating a historical narrative; both visual and written that tells the story of the project and the rich and engaging lives of the friends I photograph.

III.  The half way mark  - September 2012 – July 2013

I am constantly challenged by the unknown--wondering how this project will morph next.   While the days aren't completely gone of crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, I find myself working with more intention and thought than ever before.   I am replacing cynicism with kindness and compassion.  I'm much more likely to say "yes" to everything.  Now, every time I leave my house (or for that matter, log onto the internet) my eyes and ears are wide open. 

I have travelled during major events and tragedies, and like many of us, have relied on social media for updates from loved ones and watched the pictures and videos in real time come through our feeds.   I have been struck by the posts I saw from folks who were not affected, and how they reached out to their friends and neighbors offering assistance. It’s the same generosity and compassion that I have experienced in my travels -- we are all experiencing it now, even if just vicariously through social media.  

I have had so many experiences, learned so many lessons + been struck by the depth and beauty of this country.  I didn't realize how much this trip to photograph my Facebook friends would end up being about the epic journey itself. I've shot over 50,000 images and video; enjoyed National, State and local parks; seen many Museums; honky tonked in Nashville; moonshined in South Carolina; shared meals with friends and strangers; lectured in schools large and small; been inspired in many artist's studios; and felt sometimes disconcerted to be the only car on the road for long stretches with no cell service in rural America.  I also have come full circle artistically, I started my career many years ago as a landscape photographer, and after just returning from my longest trip yet - five months on across, up, down and back across the country, I was excited to reconnect with the landscape in a new way finding both desolation and magnificence.   While I initially fought the desire to photograph the landscape, I soon began to realized the cultural importance of everything I was seeing.   I continue to be blown away by creative people doing amazing things wherever I go.   While it hasn't always been easy and sometimes a little scary, it has always been an adventure.  

In the last two years, I have crowed funded over $50, 000, completed over 200 hundred portraits, photographed almost 350 Facebook friends, traveled to 43 states across the country and to about 100 cities/towns.  I have traveled by plane, train, boat, truck, trolley, subway, commuter rail, bus, car, bike and on foot. 

What’s next?
I am closing in on the half way mark and expect to travel to 4 more US states and begin international travel to three continents with nine countries and eleven cities.  At the completion of the project I will have photographed over 600 Facebook “friends” in their homes all over the world. The result will be a collection of portraits that create a window into the home as each subject defines it.  It is my intent that the finished project will be an exhibition (online and in real life) and a book.

About Tanja: Tanja Hollander was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1972 and she moved to Maine after receiving a B.A. in photography, film, and feminist studies in 1994 from Hampshire College. Her current project “Are you really my friend” was recently exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art, University of Central Missouri, and Phrame in Brussels.  Her work has been exhibited nationally at galleries and continues to receive international media attention.   Hollander was invited to do a TEDxDirigo talk in 2012 and has lectured at many schools through out the country about this project including University of Maryland, University of Arizona, Clemson University and Facebook Head Quarters.      In 1994, Hollander opened and directed Dead Space Gallery, Portland’s first art venue for local art, music, spoken word, and performance. She founded and was the volunteer director of the Bakery Photographic Collective from 2001-2012.  Hollander is represented by Carroll and Sons in Boston, Massachusetts and Jim Kempner in New York City. She is currently a resident of Auburn, Maine.

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