“Am I really friends with all these people?”
Having accumulated 626 friends on Facebook, the question dawned on Tanja Alexia Hollander one pensive New Years Eve. Some Face-friends Ms. Hollander had never met in “real life.” Others she didn’t speak to beyond Facebook. There were ex-lovers with new partners, ex-partners of friends, and high school friends she hadn’t seen in 20 years.
In February of 2011, the Portland, Maine-based photographer decided to get better acquainted with the people in her digital feed, travelling by plane, train, subway, bus, car, bike and on foot to take formal portraits of each Facebook friend at their home. With subjects scattered over four continents, Ms. Hollander has shot 200 of them so far with a Hasselblad camera from the early 1970s.
“Are you really my friend? The FB portrait project” examines whether Facebook gives a false sense of community. So far, the answer is no: Ms. Hollander said she’s been taken aback by the hospitality of both friends and strangers on her wall, who have housed and fed her with little to gain.
“I have crawled on the floor, played Lego and read books with children I just met, admired chickens and prize roosters, shared a bowl of gumbo in New Orleans with a friend I hadn’t met in real life … and listened to stories of family tragedy and strength,” Ms. Hollander, 39, wrote on her website.
She spoke with The Globe and Mail from Maine just before departing on another leg of the project.
You struck on this idea when you were Facebooking with one friend in Jakarta while writing a letter to another in Afghanistan.
I was home alone on New Year’s Eve, handwriting a letter in pencil to my friend in Afghanistan. At the same time, I was instant messaging on Facebook with a friend in Indonesia who I had spent many a New Year’s with. I started scrolling through my list of friends and realized they were all over the world, in very different parts of their lives and from diverse backgrounds, in terms of how I knew them: art world friends, college friends, high school friends, friends from first grade. When starting the project, I sent an e-mail to everybody, which is actually quite a difficult thing to do.
What percentage of those 626 had you never met in person?
I’d say under 10 per cent.
Have you gotten any outright no’s?
I have gotten a couple.
Why do you focus on shooting your Face-friends in their homes?
Home doesn’t have a lot to do with Facebook, but it has to do with friendship. What was a real friend? That’s somebody you have over for dinner and drinks.
For many of the families posed in your photographs, it was the first time they had a formal portrait taken. Why is it an outmoded tradition?
Everybody has cameras and everybody thinks they’re a photographer now. But portraits are such important historical documents, not only for a family’s legacy but for history in general.
Have any Facebook friends been uncomfortable as you arrived at their house?
There was one slightly awkward experience but it wasn’t the subject, it was his wife. She wouldn’t come down and greet me or be part of the photograph. That was weird.
You’ve also reached out to your exes. How’s that going?
I’m saving the hard ones for last. I have done some where it’s been so long I forget that they’re exes because I’m close friends with them.
Who else falls into the hard category?
Friend breakups. I’ve photographed one already and we made up by the end of it. We weren’t really on speaking terms – I think he said that I abandoned our friendship. So we had a little talk about that while I was there. He’s got a great sense of humour so we were laughing by the end of it.
How do people generally react during the shoot?
It’s a mixed bag. Every child has their own personality: some are really excited and some aren’t. Artist friends are usually excited by the old camera. They grew up not knowing what film is, so I have to explain what it is and why they can’t see the photograph.
The people I’d never met before have been incredibly generous and kind, which was totally surprising. I’ve been blown away by that across the board, people offering places for me to stay and feeding me, whether it’s old friends or new friends. I didn’t expect that from people I didn’t know.
Has the project changed the way you behave on Facebook?
Yes, and it’s changed the way I behave in real life. I’m a much nicer person.
I feel more in control of Facebook. When I first started, it was in control of me. I think it’s in control of a lot of people.
You’re asking all the friends you’ve photographed to change their profile pictures to the portraits you’ve made of them. Why?
The idea was that at the end, I would have everybody do a profile picture change so that I could scroll down my whole list of friends and it would be like an online exhibition.
Will you stay on Facebook after this is finished?
Yeah. I like Facebook and I’m liking it even more now. People have tried to get me to make these black and white statements about whether Facebook is good or bad, but I don’t think you can say that because everybody uses it in a different way.
Very few of your friends smile in their portraits. There’s a look of reticence, some almost look suspicious, and the teenagers look bored. Are these the family members who don’t know you, or aren’t on Facebook? What is that look?
It’s honestly a very technical reason: It comes from a really long exposure. It’s not anything cynical. They have to sit really still because I’m only using available light, not strobes or a flash.
On the project website, you refer to Facebook “friends” – in quotation marks. Are they friends or not?
I feel like I already need to update that. As the project continues I learn new things and it goes in a different direction. In the beginning, most of my research was on home and environment. Then it was on family portraits. Right now, I’m really focusing on friendship. Today, I don’t think I’d put the word in quotes.
This interview has been condensed and edited.