Tanja Hollander is a Portland, Maine–based photographer who, since early 2011, has been on an epic road trip during which she’s been taking portraits of every one of her Facebook friends (some of whom she’s never met before) in their homes, where she spends the night. The portraits are stark and deceptively casual, lit with available natural light, usually shot in kitchens and living rooms. In addition to the intimate glimpse into people’s spaces, simple information is offered with each image (name, location, how they met Hollander and how long ago), which serves to underscore the sometimes tenuous nature of Hollander’s (and our) virtual associations and attachments.
Kyle Durrie (in Type Truck)
THE BELIEVER: How do you know Kyle?
TANJA HOLLANDER: She was waitressing in Portland and showing her work, and when I started showing my work, what I decided I’d do is whenever I sold a piece I’d buy a piece from a younger artist. She was the first person I bought work from: these beautiful line drawings. She introduced herself and thanked me, and we stayed in contact, and she moved to Oregon and got involved with letterpress. She wanted to convert a truck into a letterpress studio and came back to Maine to decompress and figure some stuff out. I was like, “Come over for dinner ’cause I’m also thinking about doing this travel project.” And we wound up starting our two projects at almost exactly the same time. She did a year of traveling around in the truck, teaching people letterpress, giving workshops. We kept missing each other on the road for the first year. She’s really fucking awesome: her sense of humor. I went to see her in Silver City, New Mexico, and the truck was the guest room, so I got to sleep in it. I want to say it’s a Chevy.
BLVR: How many “friends” have you photographed so far?
TH: Three hundred and eighty-six. Almost halfway through.
BLVR: Do you instruct your subjects not to smile?
TH: I’m shooting really long exposures, so people have to sit really still for about a second. Which isn’t that long in the history of photography, but it’s long for us now. If you have big lights and flashes and stuff, you can shoot anyone in motion anywhere, but that stuff is huge and heavy and I want to travel light, unobtrusively. I’m shooting on film, using only available light, so I’m really dependent on what’s there. It is partly technical, but I’m trying to honor historical portraiture, too. My camera’s from the ’70s. My friends who shoot on hundred-year-old cameras are like, “One second? That’s nothing.”
BLVR: Sometimes the kids and dogs are a little blurry.
TH: Every once in a while you’ll see a foot that’s blurry because that person just cannot keep entirely still. And that’s telling. I always love seeing who’s barefoot and who’s in socks and who’s in shoes. Who’s comfortable enough in their space being photographed barefoot. I photographed the Portland Museum of Art director and he was barefoot, and usually when he’s in public he’s formally dressed, and people were really taken aback when they saw him in bare feet.
BLVR: There’s a voyeuristic impulse at play; it’s great getting to peek at other people’s homes, seeing how they live.
TH: Sometimes you have to choose between the best light and the coolest stuff in the room. I’ve gotten shit for these subjects being all upper-middle-class, but it’s just because artists make beautiful things, including their homes. It’s not because they have money necessarily. Creative people are really resourceful and they make really beautiful homes out of pretty much nothing. Straight guys are disgusting and they don’t ever clean their bathrooms. I won’t 100 percent say that, but I’ll 89.9 percent say it.
BLVR: Have you had a negative experience in anyone’s home?
TH: The weirdest was this guy… he’s since un-friended me, or maybe I un-friended him. My friends make goat cheese in Vermont and he was their weekend milker. So I was there and we became friends, talking about cheese or whatever. So I go visit them every summer, and I schedule this guy for a portrait and we’re all set; it’s all fine. Well, as I’m rolling into Vermont, my phone is blowing up with texts from him, and I’m like, What is going on? His wife had been emailing me that she wanted nothing to do with it. She was like, “This is not OK with me. I’m trying to teach my kids about internet privacy and this is awful.” I worked in child-custody law for twenty years. I get parents being protective. The guy, meanwhile, is telling me he’s sorry and mortified by his wife, and wants to still participate and be a part of this. So I go to photograph him and it’s down this crazy dirt road, and I can still see the rope swing swinging as I pull up, like the kids saw me coming and bolted.
BLVR: How has being on the road shaped your perspective?
TH: I am most surprised by the kindness and generosity of almost everyone I have photographed, especially the perfect strangers. People have really welcomed me with open arms and shown me around their cities and towns. It’s made me much more compassionate: seeing with my own two eyes how so many different people live. Something changes when you’re living with your eyes and ears wide open all the time, away from the comfort of your own bed and your own studio. I think it is an added layer of vulnerability.
BLVR: How many miles have you covered?
TH: Like in the last three years? I have no idea. I’m gonna guess forty-five thousand. I’m shooting while I’m driving, too. I’m getting pretty good at the steering-wheel cam. I have to weigh what’s safer: pulling over and getting run down by a semi or shooting while driving. I’m making a lot of thirty-second road videos.
BLVR: What about the really boring stretches?
TH: There are none.
BLVR: Describe yourself two years ago, on the cusp of this idea.
TH: I’m a much nicer person now. Everyone has an interesting story if you’re just listening. You have to be nice to people when you’re going into their home! You can’t be a bitch! I wasn’t a person who could small-talk. Now I can small-talk anyone: kids, old people.
BLVR: At your show in Portland, people answered the question “What is a friend?” on sticky notes and filled a wall with hundreds of them. Someone at the museum unthinkingly threw away the majority when the show came down, which is so ironic: actual posts on an actual wall proved more ephemeral than virtual posts on a virtual wall.
TH: It’s been a blessing in disguise, because I’ve been collecting them ever since, and now I have a new amazing batch from all over the country.
BLVR: Got a favorite?
TH: “A real friend immediately deletes your hard drive when you die.”