Facebook Photo Project ‘Are You Really My Friend?’ Creator on Her Progress & Her Idea Being Stolen

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Last we left off with Tanja Hollander in early 2012, Hollander was well on her way to making a name for herself and her art project “Are You Really My Friend?” The photography project is centered around the goal of Hollander photographing each of her 600 Facebook friends in their homes to take a look at what defines a friendship. Now, a year later, Hollander has achieved the halfway mark after having photographed over 325 of her online friends. In her time out on the road, she has also given her own TEDx Talk about the project, spoke at numerous universities, and most recently, spoken at the Facebook headquarters.

With all the time and energy she had invested in the project over the last two years, Hollander was shocked when news broke that fellow photographer Ty Morin announced his Kickstarter to fund an near-identical project titled, “Friend Request Accepted.” There are many ways of looking at the situation — imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there are no original ideas — but for Hollander, there is nothing flattering or cool about stealing someone else’s idea. In a blog post written shortly after she had found out about Morin having raised $7000 on his Kickstarter (the total ended up being more than $14,000), Hollander asked “What is ‘cool’ about doing the same exact project as someone else? If gender roles were reversed would it be ‘cool’ for a 20-something woman to copy a 40-year-old male artist?” Determined to set the record straight, Hollander shared with NMR through email the current state of her project, her best memories from the road and her thoughts on Morin copying her project.

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Last April we did an interview with you about your project — where has the project gone since then? How far along are you now?

Tanja Hollander:  I have had another show at the University of Central Missouri, done a TEDx talk, photographed in about 10 more states, and drove across country (lecturing along the way).  I’m looking at the halfway mark!

With two years of experience under your belt traveling the world, how has the project changed from your original vision? In what ways has it stayed the same?

I’ve re-written my “about” statement three times now. The basic premise has stayed the same — but I am constantly learning and unravelling layers of community (both on and offline) and the human condition. I really thought this was going to be a very personal documentary, but I’m realizing it is growing into a documentation about how WE all live and build communities.

Tell me about your last three months driving around the country shooting. What are some memories that distinctly stick out for you?

I think I’ve learned a lot about compassion. When you drive through rural parts of this country, down back roads that are just beautiful and see boarded-up Main Streets and ghost towns with your own two eyes, it is heart wrenching. I wonder if we would be a more compassionate country if everyone spent their senior year driving across country. Or every politician had to do it before running for office. When you see what corporate greed has done to mom and pop stores it’s just plain sad.

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What have been some of the challenges that you originally didn’t anticipate?

I didn’t realize how difficult the fundraising would be and that I would constantly be hustling.  I’m also learning (and still not great at) how to work on the road — basic things like keeping up with email, shows, backing up images, organizing them. I’ve given up on trying to live blog, and I just use Instagram to document day to day. When I get home I will sit down and write for months probably. That is another thing — I didn’t realize how much writing I would be doing, almost every day. The more I talk to students and learn about different aspects of this country, the internet, my friends, the more research I end up doing, and it is hard to keep up with it all.

Favorite memories of the road and traveling? Your craziest shooting experience yet?

The road has been really good to me. I have been awestruck by the diversity and beauty of the landscape in every single state. I took three months to get from Maine to California and at times still felt rushed. It is amazing what happens when you are alone and vulnerable for that length of time; your eyes and ears are constantly wide open. I’ve been to lots of museums; national, state and city parks; artist studios; taco joints; dive bars and thrift stores (two things corporate greed can’t kill). I feel like I’m full of great memories. I actually haven’t had any crazy shooting experiences — some crazy rest stops like the one in New Mexico that had a classic car museum and a life-size Yoda that greeted you.

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What opportunities has the project opened up for you?

It’s opened me up — I feel like I am excited about the landscape again, and I have given up on making the project be about one thing in particular. I’m allowing myself to let go of what it should be … hard for a control freak.

Since you last talked to NMR, you’ve given a Tedx Talk about the project and traveled around to universities. What are some major points you hope to share with others in these talks?

I think the basic thing I try and convey is to stop making excuses of why you can’t get out and see and do more. And to spend time with the people you care about.  And also to appreciate all of the cool and beautiful things around you. And to listen and be inspired by the people around you.

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Another artist, Ty Morin, is looking to pursue a project almost identical to your own. What thoughts do you have on this?

I think it’s great he is inspired to go on a similar journey. I’m really disappointed that he is insinuating the idea is his own. As artists, we are not just creators — we are also innovators, critical thinkers, researchers and explorers. 

For the people who will comment, “There is no original idea; almost everything has been done before,” what would you say to that especially in regards to your own project?

I agree to a certain extent. Obviously, I am not the first photographer to ever make someone’s portrait in their home or to think critically about friendship or Facebook. I did a bunch of research before I began to figure out what I could add and how my work would be different. There are also concept-driven projects that are unique — I often reference my good friend Kyle Durrie and her project “Type Truck.”  She drove around the country for a year in a converted step truck turned letterpress shop.  She is not the first person to do letter press, or to travel, but as far as I know she is the first to do such an extensive project. I don’t think there is in any question that the “concept” is hers.  

 

Check out Tanja’s previous NMR feature interview here!

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