Photographer and artist Tanja Hollander spent three days on campus with students recently exploring the intersection between art and social media (see photos here). She kicks off a new 5-year visiting artist program, the Grum Project, funded by a generous alumna.
In her own work, Hollander asked the question, “Are you really my friend?” and set off to shoot formal portraits of her 626 Facebook friends. Some were close friends, many she barely knew or had never met. In all, she traveled for five years across the U.S. and around the world by car, boat, airplane, bike, and on foot, through the eye of a Texas hurricane and in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris, taking breathtaking photos all the while.
As she spoke at Williston’s assembly, she asked students to consider, “What is a real friend?” and had them write their answer on a Post-It note. The notes, which students stuck to the rear wall of the chapel, bore honest and heartwarming responses, such as, “Someone who listens to my rants and loves me for me” and, “A real friend wants you to be happy.” Hollander then collected the notes and placed them on letter-size paper, and will scan them. She inserts keywords from each response into a database.
At assembly, she shared a tag cloud that showed the most commonly cited words from Post-Its she’s collected (“love,” “trust,” and “listen” were a few that ranked highest). Hollander will show her Facebook friends’ portraits at an exhibit at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art early next year, and is working on a documentary and a book about her work. Students’ Post-It notes will appear in the exhibit, along with thousands she’s collected.
In English, journalism, and art classes on campus, she challenged students to think about social media in new ways. True, she said, selfies and photos of brunch may be deemed shallow, but they are also a natural extension of a human fascination that began with the first known modern self-portrait in Italy in 1435 by Leon Battista Alberti, and continued through the Dutch masters’ paintings of still-lifes of food.
Hollander also sought to connect social media to political forces—think of Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring, and, more recently, more than one million Facebook check-ins at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
For her Williston project, Hollander asked the entire school community, and particularly the students in the three classes she visited, to collect a photo and a story from someone they didn’t know well, and to post them on Instagram, using the account @willistonpictureswords.
Students went out with their smart phones and returned with photos and captions that told moving stories of people all around the school and neighborhood. There was a striking image of the owner of the local dry cleaner, framed by a window, whose two grown children live in his native Honduras.
There was a photo of the woman who cooks at Williston’s Stu-Bop, looking away from the camera with a slight smile, who is quoted as saying, “I have one sibling now. I had three, now I have one.”
There was an international student, a sophomore, who said, “I feel like in the first year I was not able to discover myself or be who I really am. It took me a long time to adjust to this new culture. The best part of it was when I finally became myself again…I overcame Mt. Tom [a reference to our local mountain].”
Back in class, students assigned hashtags to the collected photos/stories. For the international student, they added, #theclimb. Hollander then navigated to #theclimb, an Instagram page where all posts with that hashtag exist, and clicked on a video of a little boy in a park in Spain, climbing a half-submerged boulder. The students cooed over the boy, marveling at his bravery and steadiness as he got to the top and then slid down.
“We just went to Madrid to see a super-cute kid,” Hollander said, smiling, perhaps, at the unexpected places social media can take you.