September 2014 - updated statement (#5)
For the past three and a half years, I have been working on a project, Are you really my
friend? (AYRMF). At the completion of the project, I will have photographed over 600
Facebook “friends” in their homes all over the world. I have meticulously documented
my experiences in real time, creating a historical narrative (both visual and written) that
tells the story of travel, diverse communities and the engaging friends I have
photographed. The final installation and accompanying book, scheduled to open in 2017
at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), will be a
multifaceted interactive digital and analogue collection of images, video, sound and data.
This project is an exploration of friendships, the effects of social networks, the intimate
places we call home and the communities in which we live. What started as a personal
documentary on friendship and environmental portraiture has turned into a survey of
American culture and community building both on- and off-line. I have become
convinced that the process of observing and documenting our networked lives and how
we live and create community is as important as the finished portrait.
A major shift is happening to our cultural landscape as we become more globally
connected and visually sensitive of the ways in which people live. By the end of the
1990s digital cameras were replacing film cameras; on June 29, 2007, the iPhone
launched; and on July 10, 2008, Facebook released its mobile app, which would change
the way we look at photographs forever. Instagram launched shortly after the iPhone 4 in
2010. Last year Facebook announced that the site has 14.58 million photo uploads per
hour. Instagram has 200 million active users, and 60 million photographs shared daily.
Snapchat has 26 million users and 400 million snaps sent daily.
I believe social media has joined the list of artistic mediums. I love that part of my
morning ritual is a virtual studio visit on Instagram with Ai Weiwei in China. He has
posted over 4000 images and started the hard to explain meme “leg-gun,” which received
both international acclaim and confusion. I am increasingly intrigued by artists using
social networks to create galleries and museums without walls while blurring the
boundaries of artist, educator, dealer, curator, critic, collector and consumer.
I have crowd-funded almost $50,000, completed close to 300 portraits, photographed
over 400 Facebook friends and traveled to 43 states, 5 countries and about 150
cities/towns. I have traveled by plane, train, boat, truck, trolley, subway, commuter rail,
bus, car, bike and on foot. The project has amassed approximately 10,000 global
followers on social networking sites, which has allowed me to expand and democratize
the process of audience engagement.
AYRMF has grown into a web of complex components with many subcategories that
cross-pollinate with the components. For example, when I lecture or exhibit the work, I
ask audience members to write on a Post-it Note their definition of a “real friend”. I then
scan the Post-it notes and upload them to social media. From the scans, I make prints of
and include them in further exhibitions. They are also being transcribed and then placed into
a database that aggregates key word matches to be visualized. What starts out as an
analogue IRL audience engagement tool, becomes digital online tool, and then transfers
back to a physical print. The components of lecture, exhibition, audience engagement,
social media, documentation and data mining/collection all come together. During my
lecture at the University of Houston, I worked with both undergraduate + graduate
photography and digital media students to set up an “anonymous” Instagram account.
They all had the password, but did not identify themselves when they posted. This has
been one of my favorite collaborative projects because it allows me to still be connected
to the students (they tag me in posts they would like me to see), it allows them to build an
identity for the department, democratically, in real time, and leaves an archive for future
students to build upon.
History of the project:
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 the 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
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”; exlovers with new partners; ex-partners of friends; art dealers, curators and high school
friends who I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. I asked myself, “Am I really friends with all
At the end of February 2011, I set out to find the answer, using the only tool I knew—
photography. I decided to visit every one of my Facebook “friends” in their homes (all
626 of them) and make their formal portraits. 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.
When I first began this project, I focused most of my research on the history of the family
portrait and photographers who traveled and documented life. I imagined what a behind the-scenes blog with the Farm Security Administration photographers in the 1930s would be like. I thought about how different The Americans would be if the entire world were
watching Robert Frank’s journey around the US in the 1950s in real time, and how that
archive could be a teaching tool for future generations, much like Lewis & Clark’s
This body of work remains in a constant state of flux while I navigate through the
dynamics of changing technology, interpersonal relationships and community. 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 the audience
through social media, the real life exhibitions I have designed, and formal lectures.
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 off the grid cabins. I saw a bee
sanctuary being built in North St. Louis as part of an urban beautification project. 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. 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 and their families while allowing me to
document it all.
I am constantly challenged by the unknown—wondering how this project will morph
next. I find myself working with more intention and thought than ever before. I am
replacing cynicism with empathy. Now, every time I leave my house (or for that matter,
log onto the internet) my eyes and ears are wide open.
Follow the project: