Are You Really My Friend?
By Rebecca Falzano
Tanja Hollander explores the meaning of friendship in a social media portrait project at the PMA
On the last night of 2010, photographer Tanja Hollander was sitting at her kitchen table handwriting a letter to a friend in Afghanistan while instant messaging on Facebook with a friend in Jakarta. It got the artist thinking—about friendships, relationships, and how we communicate in a digital age. Over the next few months, Hollander started analyzing her use of Facebook and discovered that many of her online “friends” were people she had never actually met in person. Some of them she wasn’t speaking to. Still others she hadn’t seen in over 20 years. The exercise sparked a question that many of us entrenched in social media can relate to: Am I really friends with all these people?
Armed with her camera, the photographer set out to find the answer. Hollander invited every one of her Facebook friends (at the time, 626) to have their portraits taken. She created a spreadsheet that organized people by location. She then gave each friend three chances to schedule, and if they didn’t respond, she “unfriended” them. Over the past year or so, Hollander has traveled to hundreds of homes photographing hundreds of families in the rooms they feel most comfortable in (“kitchens and living rooms tend to be the gathering places,” she notes). The resulting portraits showcase what happens when we move past a superficial level of interaction and reach across real space and time to intimately connect with one another.
More than 150 portraits in Tanja Alexia Hollander: Are You Really My Friend? will be on display starting February 4 at the Portland Museum of Art. The exhibition is the fifth in a series of exhibitions called Circa that explores compelling aspects of contemporary art in the state of Maine and beyond, and it will encourage interaction through visitor comments and an ever-changing installation of portraits.
“Prior to this project,” says Hollander, “I guess I had a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I really enjoyed seeing friends’ posts, especially those who are far away, but I also felt like there was a disconnect, and really hated the mundane things people posted. Now I use it only in the way I want to, and have taken much more control.”
While the artist has reconnected with many old friends throughout her journey, what has been most surprising, she says, are the solid friendships she’s made with people she had never met in real life and didn’t know well online either. “I think those are the most rewarding relationships.”
THE EXHIBITION RUNS AT THE PORTLAND MUSEUM OF ART FROM FEBRUARY 4 TO JUNE 17. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT PORTLANDMUSEUM.ORG OR FACEBOOK.COM/ARE.YOU.REALLY.MY.FRIEND