Tanja Hollander spent the last five years traveling the globe to meet and take pictures of each of her Facebook friends. A photographer from Auburn best known for her ethereal landscape photos, Hollander embarked on her quest as a social experiment to find out what friendship means in the social-media age and to document her travels.
One night in Houston, in October 2015, she slept alone in a car on the side of a highway because a storm forced her off the road. She felt so alone, she nearly abandoned the project. “It wasn’t a fear of dying, necessarily. There was some fear of dying, but that wasn’t the overwhelming fear. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it was this, ‘I can’t handle one more thing going wrong,’ ” she said. “I just felt completely exhausted and completely alone in a way I have never felt before.”
She didn’t quit. Buoyed by the force of her friends, she finished the project. She started in Maine in 2011 and ended in Israel in 2016. Beginning Feb. 18, Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, displays the results of her half-decade effort in a massive, multimedia installation, “Are You Really My Friend?”
With photos and videos, her project explores the notion of friendship in a digital world, where friends who live continents apart can feel more connected to each other than the stranger who lives next door. “Are You Really My Friend?” examines contemporary culture, community and class, as well as the relationships among technology, social networks and memory. It began as a personal documentary and became a survey of global culture.
The answer to Hollander’s central question – what friendship means in a world blurred by what is real and what is virtual – is predictably murky, but after traveling to four continents, 12 countries, 34 states, 180 cities and towns, 260 zip codes and 424 private homes, she concluded that friendships that exist in the ether of the internet are indeed real friendships, and each contributes to Hollander’s life and community in unique ways.
“I have more real friendships than I realized,” she said. “I’m not saying that real-life interactions are not valuable or do not matter. They do matter. But I get pleasure out of texting with friends who live on the other side of the world or sending them a Facebook message. My closest friends are not in Auburn, Maine, or even Portland. They are in Los Angeles, D.C., New York and Boston. People weave in and out of your life at different times and for different reasons.”
As the project progressed, it became less about her friends and more about Hollander and her personal experiences. From an art history perspective, her work shares heritage with Farm Security Administration photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who photographed during the Great Depression, said Mass MoCA curator Denise Markonish. Hollander is recording how society uses photography, the portrait and social media in the digital age, she said.
“It’s a really interesting portrait of humanity,” Markonish said. “Ultimately, the project is about what the world looks like these last few years.”
Hollander traces the roots of this project to the evolution of digital cameras and smartphones. The world changed in 2007 when Apple released its first iPhone, which gave people high-quality pocket cameras. A year later, Facebook released a mobile app, changing how we look at photos forever, Hollander said. Instagram followed. She launched her project amid her realization that social media was changing how people viewed art and were using photos to communicate.
“Are You Really My Friend?” is massive in scale. Hollander has presented parts of her project over the years, including at the Portland Museum of Art in 2012, but the exhibition at Mass MoCA is the whole digital dump, arranged in multiple galleries. Visitors will see photographs of each of her friends, thousands of images of travel ephemera, including boarding passes, receipts and leftover salt and pepper packets from airplanes, as well as landscapes of places she visited.
Thousands of photos are presented on several wall-size banners that frame the scope of the project.
Hollander also collected Post-it notes asking people to answer the question, “What is a real friend?” She displays photos of them as part of her exhibition. She also asks visitors to write their own reflections on friendship.
“I saved almost everything,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I began to realize early on that the travel was a big part of the story, and I wanted people to see the volume of what it means to be on the road this long, what it means to interact with this many people.”
When she began the project, Hollander thought it would be a small personal documentary about herself and her friends. As she began traveling, she realized the project was about her experiences along the way. “The experiences I was having were becoming more important than the portraits,” she said. “The final portrait didn’t really matter in some ways. That is why there is so much ephemera and so many snapshots along the way.”
Hollander made thirty 42-by-42-inch prints of her favorite portraits, and displays them in the first room of the exhibition. The rest of the portraits are presented as small images on a large banner.
A couple of self-portraits serve as bookends for the project, emotionally and chronologically. One is a photo of Hollander at her dinner table with friends. It was at this conversation that she first mentioned the idea for the project. The other is from Paris in November 2015. She was in Paris during the terrorist attacks that killed 130 people.
The two self-portraits, with friends, represent the emotional beginning and end of the project, as well as the range of the kinds of friendships in her life, she said.
“The first self-portrait is with friends that I had over for dinner, and how I defined friendship – someone you argued about art and politics with, and maybe drank a little too much wine but you’re still friends in the morning. The other, near the end of the project, is from Paris during the attacks with two other friends. I had been doing this for five years, and there I was in the middle of a war, and what kind of friendship develops in those circumstances?”
With the volume of material on view, the exhibition might feel daunting. Markonish and Hollander built in quiet, reflective spaces. In one, Hollander displays portraits of five friends who died during the project.
Hollander raised more than $50,000 to fund her travels and her work, mostly through crowd-funding.
A longtime admirer, Portland Museum of Art Director Mark Bessire praised her dedication and commitment to see the project through to its completion. He places Hollander among a group of contemporary photographers whose practice borders on performance and who challenge the audience’s expectations of what photography is.
“In the age of social media, she has found a place to use her practice to find an intimacy that is beyond personal construction and is re-engaging the act of participation,” he said.
The exhibition at Mass MoCA also includes a video, based on more than 100,000 image and video files that she collected. The morning after that rainy night on the side of the highway in Houston, Hollander met up with a friend from Nevada, who happened to be in Austin, Texas.
The friend, Robin Greenspun, knew right away that Hollander was in a bad place. “When we had breakfast, she just looked beat. She didn’t look like what Tanja looked like personality-wise, she was so down,” said Greenspun, who was an early subject in the project. “So I asked her, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
Hollander recounted the harrowing night on the highway and her growing loneliness. “And as we were talking about it, she was starting to re-examine what it meant to be on the road all by herself, and was she alone or was she lonely?”
A filmmaker, Greenspun offered to help Hollander make a movie about her experience. Hollander declined, because she was too busy. Instead, Greenspun talked Hollander into trusting her with her hard drives with those 100,000 images and made the movie herself. It is part of the installation.
“The film is all found footage. Tanja shot it all during the travel, not knowing what she should do with it. She just did it. She wanted to document everything, so she shot everything,” Greenspun said.
It is during an interview sequence in the movie where Hollander admits to herself her fears, exhaustion and loneliness. It is a poignant moment because of the honesty of her confession, and was a pivotal moment in the project, because it was then she realized “Are You Really My Friend?” wasn’t so much about her friends and friendships, but about herself.
“I really believe Tanja discovered herself on this trip,” Greenspun said. “She set out to discover what other people think of friendship from an anthropological and sociological perspective – what does friendship mean in this social media area? But what the project is really about, I believe, is what happened to Tanja through her experiences and the people she met.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: