PORTLAND, Maine — If you were to make a map of all your Facebook friends, what would it look like? How would you organize it? By location? Gender? Age? Closeness of relationship to you? And what is a friend? What does it mean today, when the word “friend” can as much mean someone you’ve known since kindergarten as a page on a website that belongs to someone you met once, or never?
Auburn photographer Tanja Alexia Hollander has lots of friends on her Facebook page — around 800, to be exact, from Maine to New Zealand — some of whom she knows intimately and others she knows only in passing. But as Facebook sees it, they’re all her friends, regardless of circumstance, and in that spirit Hollander has set out on an ambitious project: to photograph every single friend of hers on Facebook. This work in progress is being shown in an exhibition titled “Are You Really My Friend?” at the Portland Museum of Art, running through June 17.
“I know, it might seem like a crazy thing at first,” said Hollander, a Portland native and a co-founder of the Bakery Photo Collective in the former Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook. “But it brings up so many questions about friendship, and what social media and networking does to the idea of what makes someone a friend.”
Hollander got the idea for “Are You Really My Friend?” on New Year’s Eve 2010. She was writing a letter to a friend stationed in Afghanistan while at the same time chatting on Facebook with a friend living in Jakarta, Indonesia. She was struck by the differences between the two formats — an old-fashioned handwritten letter and instant messaging online — and was moved to scroll through her friend list on Facebook to see who lived where and how she knew them. From there, the idea was born to document with photography her entire social network.
“It’s sort of a very personal journey into friendship. But it also became a document of contemporary American culture. These portraits end up being a riff on the family portrait. I was very inspired by Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.’ I can’t help but wonder what that project would have been like if he’d had Facebook to use,” said Hollander, referring to the influential 1958 photography book documenting postwar American culture.
Hollander began by shooting portraits of close friends in the Portland area. She also put together a spreadsheet of all her Facebook friends organized by location, so she’d be able to easily schedule several shoots in one day. The portraits are shot in the subject’s home, whether it’s a house in Maine, a studio apartment in New York City or a musician’s touring van. By the beginning of this year, she completed 144 portraits, all of which are included in her Portland Museum of Art exhibition — though her Facebook friend list has since increased by more than 200, so she now has more than 700 photos to go.
Hollander says the process of shooting all the photos continues to be a long, challenging process, but one that she finds immensely gratifying and revealing about the lives of a particular slice of the world. Most of her friends are in the creative arts, so there are a lot of artists, writers and musicians — some of whom have done well for themselves, others live by very modest means. While it’s first and foremost a study of the concept of friendship, the project also becomes a story of how artists make it in a difficult economic world.
“Every time I find new stories and new things to talk about with everyone,” she said. “I learn something new every time. People let me into their lives, and by the end of the afternoon, it’s hard to just let it go. I have to let it decompress. It’s a lot to take in.”
She also has noticed some interesting patterns. Women are much more accommodating than men as far as scheduling goes, but husbands and boyfriends are less inhibited when it comes to the actual photograph than wives and girlfriends. Most people that have dogs want their dogs — and cats, sometimes — to be in the photo. In Maine and in much of New England, people love their gardens and chicken coops and want to show them off.
The PMA exhibit displays the photos both in one long line and in a mix-and-match series of magnets on a board. It also features a wall on which museum-goers can add a sticky note with their answer to an ever-changing series of questions about friendship and social media. For Hollander, exploring her social network has led to a serious reevaluation of what the word “friend” means.
“There’s clearly different levels of friendship,” she said. “There’s different expectations, different assumptions. Old friends, newer friends, professional friends. There’s people’s old girlfriends and boyfriends, people you don’t talk to anymore. Facebook has really taken the word ‘friend’ and changed it completely. Probably the most amazing thing to me about this project is that people I didn’t really know before, but were still my ‘friend,’ turned out to be amazing, wonderful people.”
Hollander hopes to complete the project by this time next year, but she’s not putting a strict time table on it as there are hundreds more photos to take and she has friends as far away as Singapore. The conversation surrounding how social media informs and infiltrates our daily lives is still taking shape, and is still, in many ways, not clearly articulated. “Are You Really My Friend?” is one way in which we can see how the lines between real life and the Web are both drawn and then blurred.
“It’s always changing. There’s so much to learn and to say about how social media affects our relationships,” Hollander said. “But to me, it’s clear that the most important thing is that people want to stay connected. They want to know what music you’re listening to, what you’re doing, where you’re going. They want to know that you’re real.”
“Are You Really My Friend?” is on display at the Portland Museum of Art through June 17.