Are You Really My Friend?: An Interview with Tanja Hollander

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Portland, Maine-based photographer Tanja Hollander ambitiously sets out to photograph every single one of her over 600 “friends” on Facebook, whether they are close or distant in both world and heart, in her art project titled “Are You Really My Friend?” While many of us may have never seriously questioned the broad or particular meanings of a bloated Facebook friend list, Hollander did over two years ago when she began the art project that will have had her photographing people in at least 30 states, 10 countries, and 4 continents upon completion. Currently, the ongoing project is featured in a highly interactive exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art, where visitors can experience Hollanders’s cyber-relationships as real and personal through printed images. I was able to chat with Tanja early last Friday morning while my hair was nowhere near being in place.

Tanja Hollander's self portrait.

 

Alan Van: What’s the concept behind “Are You Really My Friend?”

Tanja Hollander: It started as an exploration into what friendship is and what friendship is in this new online social networking arena–for lack of a better word. It started off because I was handwriting a letter to a friend in Afghanistan and at the same time multitasking on Facebook on New Year’s Eve instant messaging with a friend who was in Jakarta. I just started thinking a lot about friendship and what that means and how it’s really important to me as an artist. I just started scrolling through my friends on Facebook and realized that they were all from different parts of my life; and they’re a diverse group of people, and I just asked myself, “What does friendship mean? What is it about? And how do all of these different people have an influence on me in one way or another and whether that sort of thing is photographable–relationships, friendships, etcetera.”

Alan: Why is photography a good medium for what you’re exploring?

Tanja: It’s the only medium I know [laughs]. If I were a writer, I would write about it, but I’m a photographer so I try and photograph it.

Alan: So why, specifically, family portraits for this project? If it’s about your relationship with the individuals, why does it need to include family members and pets?

TanjaWell, I think part of it is that environmental portraits are as much about the family and the home as the individual. I think relationships define who you are, so if you want to photograph who you really are, then you want your family, your pets, and you want your favorite salt and pepper shaker.

Alan: You’ve talked about the family portrait dying off. Why is the family portrait so important?

TanjaI think it’s important because it’s a real historical document on your life.

Alan: From portrait to portrait, how do you show the differences in your relationships with your individual Facebook friends?

TanjaThat’s the interesting thing – that everyone is sort of democratized. I don’t think there’s a way to show one friendship that’s longer or shorter or quote, unquote more real than another. They’re all shot the same way.

Alan: Since on Facebook, they’re all just your friends.

TanjaExactly.

Alan: How do you choose which environmental elements to include within each frame from image to image?

TanjaGenerally, I frame them in the things that I want to try and grab and that emit what I like about their living environments. For the most part, when I go to shoot, people invite me in, and we sit around a table—it’s usually a kitchen table–or in the living room and chat and catch up. Sometimes, I get fed and offered refreshments, and I generally just take myself out of the picture and shoot where they are, where we have been. Rarely do we move to another room for the actual photograph.

Alan: Usually, when you look at a photograph you’re supposed to be able to say, “This photo was taken by this photographer.” If I asked you where you were in these images, you would say, “I am not in them.”

TanjaI’m not in them, although I think they’re pretty clearly about me; my shooting style, the way I frame the images—definitely there’s a ton of light pouring through.

Alan: Do you think your being a landscape photographer influenced you to use natural lighting?

TanjaYes, definitely 100%.

Alan: Why only natural lighting?

Tanja: Because it’s less cumbersome and less artificial. The way I shoot is very low-key, and I didn’t want to bring in strobes and flashes – it adds a layer between me and the subject.

Alan: Are there other ways your landscape photography experience has influenced this project?

TanjaYes, definitely. You can see horizon lines that are instead of the sky and land horizon lines, they’re couches and tables. Everything is very divided in that way. I kind of feel that portraits are mini retrospectives of the bodies of work that I was working on before this, the landscapes and shooting-out-of-windows. It combines the home and the outside, and the portrait into one image.

Alan: Why did you choose the square format for your photographs?

TanjaIt’s just the camera I shoot with–the Hasseblad–which is square format. I’ve been shooting with it for over 20 years. I love the camera, and I love the square. It wasn’t a conscious decision for this project.

Alan: I think a lot of people see square pictures these days and think of Instagram.

Tanja: [laughs] I was so excited with Instagram because it was a square format. I’ve been using that my whole life.

Alan: So you like Instagram?

Tanja: I love Instagram. I just got one 3 or 4 months ago; I feel like I’m a late bloomer on Instagram. It’s one of those things where it’s really natural to me, and I love it but I haven’t had the time to explore the whole Instagram community in the way that I want to. I’m just figuring it out. All the social networks have their own language and their own way of dealing with things, and that to me is a whole new learning experience. When I first started, I was no social media expert or Facebook expert; I wasn’t obsessed with it. I was obsessed with photography, and I just found that Facebook was a great tool to explore this project. A couple months in, I was like, “Oh, I have to really learn about Facebook.” Because if I’m doing a project based on it, I have to know the in’s and out’s. It didn’t even occur to me to start a page for the project a month in [laughs]. I was so naïve. So then I got on Twitter, and the language is so different from Facebook. And Instagram language is different. Originally, I was crossposting everywhere, and people would get mad [laughs].

Alan: Each one has their own protocol.

Tanja: Yeah, there’s a protocol, and it’s really interesting. I was just sharing everthing on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr—I’m still learning Tumblr protocol, which is still different. I was just blogging more as a diary, not as something that I thought people would actually care about or follow. I didn’t know the protocol for blogging, and I had a friend that was like, “You can’t do that!” and I’m like, “What do you mean?” [laughs] “You’re using it in the wrong way!” I was trying to tell people what I was doing. The learning experience has been really interesting. On Twitter, I didn’t post things for a couple of months because I was watching how people were using it, and I still don’t feel that I have a Twitter or Instagram voice three months in.

Alan: Earlier, you said that you chose photography as the medium for this project because you’re a photographer, and that makes perfect sense. But what are the advantages of photography compared to a different medium? What does it offer that other mediums might not be able to?

TanjaFor one thing, I think Facebook is really photo-heavy, so it makes sense to use it in that way. It’s a perfect collaboration, and I want to say that Facebook, in a way, is also a medium for this. The dying historical family photograph–everyone loves to look at old photographs of their families–when portraits first started they were based in painting aristocracy, where only if you were a part of a certain class did you have your portrait painted. When photography came along it was a little bit more democratized, although you still had to have serious money to get your portrait done. Slowly, the Sears, the Walmarts, the Glamour Shots took that on. But with iPhone technology and digital point-and-shoot, people are taking pictures all the time, and there isn’t that sense that historically documenting yourself is as important as it was before.

Alan: So do you think it’s a good thing that everyone has cameras in the form of iPhones, and pocket cameras? Is it good that it’s more democratized and less rarefied?

Tanja: I think it’s awesome. I love photography, and I love seeing pictures. I love going through my Facebook stream and seeing awesome pictures by people who don’t consider themselves photographers.

Alan: How did you decide to set up each shot in this project?

Tanja: It’s how they were. Backlighting tends to be a huge issue for me, so I’ve learned just by error, mostly. If people are in front of a window, just move them in front of a window jam out of the direct light. I try not to move people around–just where they’re most comfortable.

Alan: So it’s all as natural as possible.

TanjaYes.

Alan: Do you give them directions?

Tanja: A lot of times, the children want to stand on the tables or do what they’re not supposed to do. I’m like, “Sure, no problem,” and the mom is like, “Get off the table.” [laughs]

Alan: So you just want them to be themselves.

Tanja: Yeah, I want them to be themselves. If their kid wants to goof off then it’s fine with me, but they have to be aware that they’re going to be a blurry ball if they’re running around. It’s a long exposure because it’s only available light, so they have to sit really still. The only directions I give are “Sit really still and try not to smile,” because when people try to pose they end up moving.

Alan: There’s a shot I noticed–Andy Bothwell. The picture is just of him being in a car, and all you see is the upper portion of his head from behind a headrest. Why is that so different from the other photos?

TanjaHis alias is Astronautalis. He’s a hip-hop artist, so he’s on the road a lot, and I got him on his tour bus.

Andy Bothwell photographed by Tanja Hollander in his tour bus.

Alan: So that’s his home.

TanjaYeah, that’s his home. There’s also another hip-hop artist—Bluebird–who I also got in his van; which is actually different from Andy’s because he converted an RV into a portable studio where he has it all tripped out so he can just pull up and do a show and not rely on a venue. And then another friend, Kyle Durrie, converted a linen truck into a letterpress studio, so I got her in her movable home.

Alan: So there’s flexibility in these photographs.

TanjaThey don’t have to be the traditional home. If you’re a musician, you’re on the road. I kind of like those – they make you ask a question. The picture of Andy was really hard to take because I was crammed up against the dashboard, and I want to get as much of him as I can; but I can’t; and it’s night; and he’s about to go on. He was so nice to do that for me right before a show.

Alan: For everyone that lets you take a picture, you give them a printed photograph. Is printed photography more ‘real’ than a picture that stays digital on the screen?

Tanja: That’s an interesting question, and it kind of goes back to the theme of the project of what is real and what isn’t. I think that all interactions online are a great enhancement for real life, but I don’t think it’s a substitute by any means. Yeah, I think the prints are so much better than what you would experience online, than if you were to go to the museum show. And so many people have told me, “Wow, to see them in real life is really different than seeing them online.” And I even surprised myself when I started making the prints; just to be able to hold them and see all the different things. It’s a different experience, and I don’t think one is better or worse, and it’s the same with online relationships. I have really great friends I haven’t met in real life that I know through Facebook, or I know through Twitter, or I know through online groups or online photo communities. I’m part of Flat Photo, which is an amazing resource on Facebook. I’ve met a couple of them in real life, and that’s amazing, but online relationships aren’t a substitute for real life relationships, by any means.

Alan: As a photographer that’s doing a time-consuming and costly project, how do you balance the tightrope between art and business?

TanjaIt’s really hard. It’s really, really hard. It’s this constant tightrope that I’m working. This week, I was going to launch another fundraiser, but I’ve just been responding to the interview requests and keeping up with people who are posting and reposting since the NPR thing [Fresh Air] dropped on Monday, which I didn’t know would happen. I would’ve had a team of interns to help me in advance if I’d have known. So I haven’t been able to do any of the fundraising I was supposed to do this week. I’m leaving for New Orleans next week, and I have no idea how I’m going to pull that off because I have no travel money to do it.

Alan: Art for the artist can be so personal. And business is business. It has to be really difficult.

Tanja: People have been really interested in the project, and it’s been really great because I’ve crowdfunded amost the entire thing. Over twenty thousand dollars, and pretty much twenty-five dollars at a time. There have been some bigger checks here and there, but that to me is an amazing thing–that people really believe in it and are behind it and support me in it.

Alan: Why do you think people have been so interested in this project? People have welcomed you into their homes to be photographed.

TanjaI think it’s because it’s kind of crazy [laughs]. I don’t know—I was just talking with a friend–I don’t know why this project, more than any other project I’ve worked on, has gotten the attention that it has. Partly because Facebook is part of everybody’s life; whether you’re on Facebook or not, you have a story about it. You have to tell people why you’re not on it because everyone else is, and those people are real definitive about why they’re not. And I think the Internet and social networking is so new that we’re just starting to understand it. We’re starting to question the effects it’s having on us. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to understand.

Alan: Do you think our relationships are better or worse through online social networking?

Tanja: I don’t think that you can brand things. It’s hard to have a definitive black and white about it because everyone uses it in a different way.  I’ve been studying my Facebook feed and my friends, and I don’t see people using it the same, so I don’t think there’s a black or white answer to that. For me, personally, the positives outweigh the negatives. You have to have control over it instead of it controlling you.

Alan: The title of your exhibit is “Are You Really My Friend?” For you, what’s the difference between a real friendship and a friendship that isn’t?

Tanja: I was really cynical when I went into this, and I’m not as cynical anymore. But I was sort of thinking that there was no way this six hundred plus friends that I’ve amassed really care what I’m doing or who I am or anything like that. What I’ve found is that there are different kinds of friendships, and I’m not sure some are more valid than the others. There are friends that I can always call to go see music with–they’re not the same friends I go to museums with, or the same friends I call in the middle of the night, crazy [laughs], having some issue about something–my family that I can be like, “I’m coming over to eat your food and watch TV.” And that’s OK. It’s great to have lots of different kinds of friendships, and I learned that you can’t expect everything from one person, and having different kinds of friends is a good thing, not a bad thing. And even just being able to communicate with other photographers around the world about something even though we’ve never met in real life is a gift.

Alan: And what can other people learn from your project?

TanjaFor me, I’m not trying to teach people anything. I’m asking questions like, “How do you define friendship?” and “Are the people in your life important to you? and “Are your Facebook friends important to you?” and “Are your Twitter friends important to you?” and “What do you gain from any of those relationships?” For me, it’s been a hard look at relationships and how I interact with people. Most of the time, it’s been really fun, but there are people I haven’t talked to, or pissed off–generally over petty things. For me, it’s been an exploration into accepting responsibility for my bad friend behavior as much as it’s been about reconnecting with people. I’ve learned how to be a much nicer person as part of this too.

Alan: People aren’t as bad as you thought.

TanjaYeah, people are really kind and generous if you show that back as well.

Alan: Do you consider the interactivity in your exhibit to be an essential part of the art?

TanjaAbsolutely. It was key. That, and I’m also doing these Livestream talks with the museum director who curated the show. I’m doing them monthly, and I think that is a key element as well, because social media breaks down the boundaries in relationships. So I can be friends with collectors, museum curators, and directors in a way that has never happened before. The way the art world works is the gallery usually keeps you away from the important people, so I wanted to break down the role of museum visitor and make myself accessible via comments, via Livestream, via talks. I’ve forced Mark [Portland Museum of Art director, Mark Bessire] to be accessible as well, which he was thankfully game for. As far as museum directors go, he’s more accessible than most. But I forced him to be even more accessible. [laughs]

Alan: You have to be accessible if you’re on Livestream and anyone could be jumping into the conversation with you.

TanjaIt’s funny because people haven’t really taken advantage of it. The art world is slow to take to the social media game, which is weird to me because artists can take control of their professional lives in a way that has never been possible before. Musicians jumped right on it; Myspace showed them that they didn’t need to rely on agents, producers, and labels anymore, and I think artists are the same way except that they haven’t realized it yet.

Alan: There’s almost unlimited potential for artists.

Tanja: Even galleries and museums aren’t on it the way they should be. There are a handful of museums I follow, and I’m like, “Seriously?” I follow Gagosian—he’s a major art dealer in the world–and he has the most boring Twitter feed ever. It’s like, “Come to the opening on Thurday.” This guy that has more money and more control over the art world seriously has the most boring Twitter feed I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing how backward the art world is. They’re so snobby about embracing this thing. I probably shouldn’t be saying these things. [laughs]

Alan: But it’s true.

TanjaIt is true.

 

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