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Are You Really My Friend?: Tanja Hollander (Transcript)

Tanja Hollander at TEDxDirigo

Full text of artist Tanja Hollander’s talk: Are You Really My Friend? at TEDxDirigo conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Are you really my friend by Tanja Hollander at TEDxDirigo


This is an awesome post-it-note that somebody’s grammy left for me at the Portland museum.

In 2010 New Year’s Eve, I spent a lot of time thinking about Facebook and friendship. I was on Facebook instant messaging to a really good friend who was working on a film in Jakarta.

At the same time, I was handwriting a letter in pencil to a friend who was deployed in Afghanistan.

And I started thinking about those two friendships and how they were from really different parts of my life, but those two people were really important to me.

So I started scrolling through my list of friends on Facebook, and realized they were all over the world and from really different parts of my life. And I was also thinking about how crazy it was, I was home alone on New Year’s Eve on Facebook.

On the other hand, how awesome it was that I was talking to my friend Sandeep. I was also thinking a lot about the history of photography, the portrait, and the great American road trip.

I was thinking a lot about Robert Frank’s historical book, The Americans who spent a year traveling in the 50s during the Civil Rights Movement, photographing what real Americans were.

So I’m one of those kind of people that acts before they think, and I decided I was going to go and photograph all 626 of my Facebook friends in their homes all over the world.

I had about $50 in the bank, and I was working three-day jobs because the art market as you know collapsed. But I decided I was going to do it anyways.

So I figured out where everybody lived, made a spreadsheet in this graph, green is Maine, yellow is New York, orange is Massachusetts, red is Missouri, or maybe that’s California, then Missouri and then the rest of the world.

And I wrote a grant, launched a fundraiser, emailed my friends and crossed my fingers.

The first person to respond to my email was Samantha Appleton, she’s the ex-girlfriend of a really close friend of mine about 15 years ago and we had stayed in contact somewhat. She’s also a photographer and was currently one of four of Obama’s photographers in the White House.

She responded and said that she loved my project, that I could stay with her when I came to DC, she would buy a print and give me a tour of the West Wing. Was that an okay trade?

I said done and done, booked my ticket enough out to get Secret Service clearing and headed to DC.

When I was at the airport, she was texting me frantically because it was the day that the government was about to shut down and she didn’t know if she was going to have a job by the time I got to DC.

She ended up having a job and I got my amazing tour of the West Wing. She showed me around DC and introduced me to her friends and it was one of the most amazing experiences, this person that I only knew peripherally became a close friend and also a huge supporter of the project.

It was an incredible way to start out this project with such kindness and generosity and at the White House. This is the formal portrait I did of Samantha while I was there.

I’ve traveled to almost 20 states by plane, train, car, commuter rail, subway, bus, trolley. In this photograph I jumped in the white truck which looks like an ordinary delivery truck but a friend converted it into a traveling letterpress studio. And she’s traveling around the country doing workshops with people out of this delivery truck teaching them old timey press.

So I jumped in in Providence, we drove down to Connecticut got on a ferry to Long Island and then drove down Long Island to Brooklyn together where she did another workshop.

I’ve been shown prize roosters and laying hens and given tours of incredible gardens, both in cities and in the country. In St. Louis, I went to photograph friends, Juan and Kirsten, the day after their bees arrived for a project they’re working on building a bee sanctuary in the old Pruitt Igoe projects. They call it urban beautification and it was incredible thing to watch and still follow.

I met a hip hop artist Bluebird who transformed a small RV into a portable performance space. So he travels around the country not dependent on any venue in particular, he just opens the doors and windows of the RV and does a show wherever and whenever he wants.

I was in Austin for South by Southwest and drove to Houston to photograph a friend who I hadn’t met in real life: Amy; she’s a professional contact, she’s an interior designer and art consultant and have bought my work from my gallery in New York for her high end clients in DC.

I emailed her and asked if I could photograph her which was slightly awkward. What was even more awkward was I had about $100 to make this trip, and so I asked if I could stay with her, and she warmly said yes.

And then the next couple of weeks planned our itinerary for the weekend. So I showed up and she lived with her sister in this small two bedroom apartment and she slept in her sister’s room and gave me her room. They’re on their way to a party and said, look we bought you beer and wine, the food is stocked, make yourself at home, here are the keys, we’ll see you in the morning, which was amazing. My friends don’t even give me keys to their apartment.

And the next day, she took me to lunch at an art dealers house and then to the rodeo with her extended family, it was a real Texas experience. I’ve been fed great meals and learned the dinner table rules.

This project started out as a really personal documentary and I thought that’s what it was going to be for me, but I’ve realized I’ve been invited into so many homes and then given tours of so many communities. It’s really becoming a collaboration between my friends. And every time I exhibit it and talk about and show it, it also becomes a collaboration with you, the audience.

The Art Institute of Chicago, it was the first time I’d ever heard anybody read a white label out loud. And this elderly gentleman was in front of a Lewis Hine factory labor photograph, and read it out loud to his grandson about how important labor laws are, and child labor laws specifically in unions. And he was really thankful that his son was able to go to school and not to a factory.

And I just sat there awestruck listening to this elderly gentleman talk to his grandson, and realized that the experiences that I was having and the things that I was seeing and doing and meticulously blogging about are as important as the final portrait itself.

Scott Tony was a mentor to my little sister when she worked in a restaurant in Boston. And after I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans during Jazz Fest photographing, I emailed my friends and said if there are any community events happening, I’ll try and schedule my travel around what’s going on in your town.

And Scott wrote back and said this isn’t exactly a fun community event, but my niece died last year, and it’s the year anniversary of her death, and there’s a domestic violence Bike-A-thon happening, maybe you would want to come for that.

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