I was a Facebook holdout, and a self-righteous one at that. I was sure that my world was a cleaner, clearer place because I didn’t muck about with people’s lives online. I saw Facebook as the worst kind of clutter. Did I really need to know that someone I barely remembered from high school had a scratchy throat or loved pork chops? “Be here now,” I’d smugly intone when work colleagues questioned my nonparticipation. So they lay in wait, and when I finally, cautiously, signed on, the almost instant onslaught of friend requests — including those from people I hadn’t thought about for years — left me feeling exposed and vulnerable.
I was also confused. Did these folks really fit my definition of “friend”? Why would they want to read my day-to-day prattle? How did I know them and why should we stay in touch?
Photographer Tanja Hollander asked herself those questions and more. And rather than aimlessly ponder, she’s taken camera in hand and is visiting each of her 626 Facebook friends, removing “virtual” from their relationships and creating a portrait to document the moment. To further personalize their meetings, Hollander uses film and natural light to capture images of her FB friends and their family members in intimate settings — gathered around kitchen tables and lounging on living room sofas. She’s dubbed her efforts “Are You Really My Friend? The Facebook Portrait Project.”
“It’s really an investigation into a question,” she says. “What does it mean to be someone’s friend and how are we all connected?”
Hollander’s FB friends are an amalgam of close buddies, friends-of-friends, business colleagues, and people she hasn’t actually met in real life. “There are different levels of friendship and they give you different things in different ways,” she says. She found the process of planning their face-to-face interactions surprisingly moving. “I’ve had to analyze my friendships of the last 30 years one by one,” she says. “When I was typing everyone into my initial spreadsheet — where they were, thinking of the last time I saw them — it was like going through old scrapbooks. The entire process is a really emotional one that sometimes catches me off guard.”
Her subjects’ willingness to participate has been gratifying. “The thing that’s surprised me most, although less so as the project continues, is the compassion and generosity people have shown in welcoming me into their homes,” she says. She finds it’s often the first time these friends and their family members have been formally photographed and gives them a copy of the resulting portrait.
Thus far, only two of Hollander’s friends have turned down requests for portraits, both for privacy reasons. She admits that the friends she’s photographed to date have been easy, but foresees challenges. “I’m saving the toughest, like ex-boyfriends, for last,” she says. “Some friends have advised me not to do that though, because then the last three months of the project will suck.”
Hollander’s home visits have highlighted another thing — the difficult times people currently are experiencing. “I’ve seen it’s really tough for creative people in this economy,” she says, referring to her many friends in the arts. “Freelancers are hard up and having to chase people down for checks. But I’m also impressed by how creative people are in supporting themselves. I’m seeing a lot more gardens and prize roosters and bees and people being more self-sufficient than I’ve seen in years.” Hollander supports herself and the FB Portrait Project with a part-time job in the field of child custody law. She’s also written grants and sells her photographs through gallery shows, her blog, and an Etsy shop.
Hollander’s just nine months into what she envisions as a several-year project — to complete her portraits she’ll have to travel to Dubai, Spain, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Scotland, and other locales — and as she travels, the scope of her project expands. As she writes on her blog: “What started out as a personal documentary on friendship and environmental portraiture has turned into an exploration of American culture, relationships, generosity and compassion, family structure, community building, storytelling, meal sharing, our relationship to technology and travel in the twenty-first century, social networking, memory, and the history of the portrait.”
Though she’s hesitant to draw conclusions this early in the project, she has debunked one of her original theories — that the community created by Facebook is a false one. “We’ve lost a lot of intimacy because of the Internet, but I’ve been surprised that people really do pay attention to your life,” she says. “They’ll say ‘I saw you were here or doing this.’ Visiting someone solidifies your online relationship and bonds you in a different way. But the online part isn’t just fluff.”
How do you define your online friendships?