Are You Really My Friend? The Facebook Portrait Project by Tanja Alexia Hollander

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On New Year’s Eve of 2010, Tanja Alexia Hollander sat at home (yep, she stayed in on New Year’s Eve) writing a letter to a friend recently deployed to Afghanistan, while simultaneously instant messaging another friend working on a film in Jakarta. The dichotomy between the old and new forms of communication got Tanja thinking about friendship and its relationship to Facebook and other forms of social media. She wondered, What is friendship? And is it photgraphable? She decided to find out.

Through fundraising, and grant support, Tanja got the funds necessary to begin her photographic quest. In March of 2011, the Westbrook-based photographer embarked on an ambitious, and very much “information age” project: to connect with all her Facebook friends in real life, and take their portraits. With 626 Facebook friends, I’m not kiddin’ when I say ambitious.

Now, just over a year into the project, Tanja has been to 16 different different states and photographed around 200 of her Facebook friends. “People are really excited,” she told me, “They cook for me, offer me drinks. Moms are the best. They give you stuff to-go.”

How many of your Facebook friends are really your friends?

Though many of her Facebook friends were happy to accomodate the photoshoot, not everyone was so responsive. As an avid Facebook user myself (I can be that annoying person to blow up your newsfeed), I know that I’m only likely to grab drinks with a significantly small percentage of my X amount of Facebook friends. Tanja has a similar online friendbase–filled with real-life friends, aquaintances, and sometimes, almost strangers. I asked Tanja how she contacts people she barely even knows, let alone has a phone number for. She said it starts with an email. If no response, she tries Facebook messaging. If still nothing, she posts on their public wall. When I asked what happened if they still don’t reply, she told me point blank, “Defriend. Three chances. If you can’t even respond I probably don’t need to be Facebook friends with you in the first place.” Wise lady.

Despite the occasional nonresponsive “friend,” Tanja has been busy. Particularly fond memories of her journey include catching up with artists on the road and photographing them on their tour buses. She saw the “rambler” status of these musicians particularly relevant to social media: “Nowadays, when you’re on the road, you rely on the internet to stay connected and interactive.”

The interactive Facebook experience is actually mimicked in Tanja’s current Portland Museum of Art exhibit. When the museum decided to feature her project back in October, she essentially had two months to plan the exhibit. The task at hand: find a way to take something originally meant for the internet and transcribe it to print. “It was tough,” she told me, “I really wanted to keep that Facebook experience. I wanted interaction–comments.” Using prompt questions and post-it notes, Tanja succeeeded by creating a real life “wall” for the museum goers where they can share their comments, positive or negative, in the exhibit setting.

What does the whole project say about Facebook? Well, with over 400 Facebook friends to go, Tanja’s far from done. It’s still a work-in-progress. However, she did have some insights on the social media giant we all know, and interchangeably love/hate:

I don’t think it’s the evil monster a lot of people make it out to be. It’s really a great tool for artists and musicians. You can spread the word [of your art] all over the world and stay connected. I use it much differently now than I ever have. I’ve definitely learned how to use it better–I’m in control now. It’s when it controls you that it becomes a negative thing.

Work-in-progress or not, it’s worth seeing. In fact, it’s “unfinished” status only makes it more like Facebook, a medium we’re constantly changing and updating. Tanja herself has gained over 200 more Facebook friends since the time she started the project–she’s nearly at 1000 friends now!

Check out the exhibit

Are you really my friend? is at the Portland Museum of Art until June 17th. I suggest grabbing some real-life friends and checking it out. Embrace the irony that it might take something based on social media to get you out of your house, away from social media.

Drop some knowledge.