Leave it to Las Vegas cultural lighthouse—producer, director, philanthropist—Robin Greenspun to find inspiration in a third party’s run-in with a hurricane. One that Tanja Hollander, a photographer based in Auburn, Maine, found herself in the middle of— while in Texas—working on her Are You Really My Friend? photo project.
The acquaintances connected while both were in Austin for a six-hour overlapping window in fall 2015, shortly after the hurricane. It was then that Greenspun first asked a weather-enervated Hollander if she had documented the making of Are You Really My Friend?
Greenspun says Hollander “was very quiet. Then proceeded to tell me that she was in [the] hurricane, alone in her car in an alley not knowing whether it would float away. I asked her if she had shot video as well as stills, and then asked her if she had thought about making a documentary about the journey.”
Greenspun edited about 100,000 of Hollander’s digital files into a 37-minute documentary. At the time, Hollander had been in the solitary throes of her five-year-long project. She had set out to photograph all of her 626 Facebook friends in their homes (including some in the Las Vegas area), in a bid to explore the renewed flexibility of the meaning of friendship in the temporal arc of social media.
Eventually, Hollander photographed 451 friends for 430 portraits in 424 homes, traveled 203,206 miles through 180 cities and towns, 260 zip codes, 34 states, 12 countries and four continents, adding 72 new friends and portraits along the way. Greenspun, who along with Las Vegas-based Chris DeFranco and his production company Quiet Film produced and directed Are You Really My Friend? The Movie, saw immediate value in the subject. President of CineVegas Film Festival, Greenspun made her documentary directorial debut with Semicolon: The Adventures of Ostomy Girl.
Her own intricate history with Hollander, that pre-dates her involvement in the project, is testimony to the tentacular power of the friendship superhighway that is social media. “I knew Tanja through my daughter Moira, a photographer who lived in Maine for a while.”
Hollander had photographed Zoe Tarmy and her brother George for the project before Tarmy began dating Greenspun’s son James. They are now married. The documentary was quite transformative for Hollander, who also found herself in Paris on the night of the terrorist attacks in November 2015 and ended up writing Instagram essays observing the aftermath with writer Jeff Sharlet.
“I try to say ‘yes’ more than ‘no’ after this five-year journey, when friends ask to do things I had a preconceived notion about,” says Hollander, who also found herself way more tolerant and understanding of the ways of the rest of the country, once she self-realized she was an “East Coast liberal.”
“What I saw driving those long expanses, mostly in the Midwest and West, was isolation and poverty. I realized how different a person’s outlook on life must be if you live without access to different kinds of people and information. I think we grow more compassionate when we live with and learn how other people and communities exist.”
The documentary is now part of the AYRMF? exhibit at Mass MoCA— Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art—until January 17, 2018, which includes photographs, video, data visualization/mining travelogue and landscape images.