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This photographer took pictures of every one of her Facebook friends to understand friendship in the digital age

Mary Bok, Camden, Maine.
Mary Bok, Camden, Maine.

On New Years’ Eve 2010, as Tanja Hollander wrote a letter to a friend deployed to Afghanistan while also instant messaging with a friend in Jakarta, she marveled at the different kinds of connections available in the digital age. She also began to wonder, she told NewsHour recently, “what Facebook had done to corporatize friendship but also bring friends together.”

So Hollander, who is a photographer, decided to explore what friendship means in the age of social media by meeting and photographing every one of her 626 Facebook friends. It’s an experiment that took her around the world, and has raised as many questions for her as answers.

Among her Facebook connections were close friends, loose acquaintances, and people she had never actually met in real life. In meeting them, she said, “I had wonderful experiences with people I was not really close to, and not-so-great experiences with people I was really close to” — evidence that digital and physical friendships differ.

Hollander decided to photograph every person inside his or her home, surrounded by the people and objects they lived with every day.

“Photographing people in their homes … that was me trying to understand what a friend was,” she said. “Because to me, the home is as important to defining who you are as any kind of emotional definition. You were introduced to their friends and their families. You saw what books or art they had, or lack of books or art. The little objects they surround themselves with.”

Hollander’s photographs are now on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, along with physical ephemera from her travels, including boarding passes, maps people drew to send her to coffee shops, tickets, printouts of emails, and notes people left behind.

“I wanted to say: Pay attention to these objects you get and pay attention to these friends,” she said.

As the project progressed, and Hollander continued to travel around the world, she also began asking people to tell her their definition of a real friend. Responses, which she collected on Post-Its, ranged from the expected (“trustworthy” and “there for me”) to the very specific (a person who buys a flight home the moment they learn of a death in your family).

A Post-It note response to Hollander's question: What is a real friend to you?

A Post-It note response to Hollander’s question: What is a real friend to you?

In the end, Hollander said, she decided that “alarmist headlines” about social media degrading friendships were overblown and that Facebook was just another way to connect. But when asked about her definition of friendship, she says it’s one that exists very much in the physical realm.

“I decided what a real friend to me was someone you could share a meal with and drink too much red wine and argue with art or politics,” she said, “and still be friends in the morning.”

See more of Hollander’s photos below, or at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), where they are on display until January. NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown recently visited the museum to see Hollander’s and other exhibits. Watch that report below.


Derek Jackson, Portland, Maine.

Colin Dusenbury & Thaddeus Herrick, Los Angeles, California.
Colin Dusenbury & Thaddeus Herrick, Los Angeles, California.

Jonas Minh Leon and Shanti Anya, Auckland, New_Zealand.

Jonas Minh Leon and Shanti Anya, Auckland, New_Zealand.

All photos courtesy of Tanja Hollander.

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