Meer nog dan letters zijn beelden onderhevig aan eenzijdige, of zeggen we beter ‘enkelvoudige’ interpretaties. Zo zou je met enkele beelden van deze vrij jonge documentaire-fotografe Sarah Blesener, geboren in Minneapolis Minnesota USA, kunnen denken aan een activiste die het over de kwalijke gevolgen van ‘nationalisme’ zou kunnen hebben, terwijl zij met haar werk meer geïntresseerd is in het ontstaan van wat mensen geloven en hoe ze via hun families, jongerenjaren en toekomstmogelijkheden met allerlei geloofsvormen en overtuigingen in contact komen, gebonden aan het tijdperk waarin zij (wij) leven.
Sarah Blesener is a documentary photographer based in New York City. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she studied Linguistics and Youth Development. While in University, she worked as a photographer for the organization Healing Haiti based in Port au Prince, Haiti, covering events surrounding the 2010 earthquake. Upon graduation, she studied at Bookvar Russian Academy in Minneapolis, concentrating on the Russian language. She is a graduate of the Visual Journalism and Documentary Practice program at the International Center of Photography in New York. Her latest work revolves around ideologies amongst youth in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the United States. She was recipient of the Alexia Foundation grant for her 2017 work in the United States, and was also a 2017 fellow with Catchlight, working with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. In 2018, she was a recipient of the Eugene Smith Fellowship. In 2019, her personal project, Beckon Us From Home, received a first place prize in the Long-Term Project category of World Press Photo.
‘I am interested in how beliefs are formed at a young age, how young people identify in their political atmosphere, and how it shapes them as individuals. On a different note, this also has to do with militarization of youth and the thin line between patriotism and nationalism. While issues affecting youth and youth culture are underreported, I find the same to be true with women and warfare. The reason I decided to photograph women soldiers in Ukraine had to do with the same themes I mentioned: identity, belief, and tradition. However, I also wanted to see a perspective of the story I had not witnessed before – how women were fighting not only in the war, but also for equal treatment as soldiers and for the right to fight on the front line of combat.’
My interest in “nationalism” as an ideology rather than “Russian nationalism” in particular is what led me to work on this project. I had spent a few years studying the Russian language, and a few years living in Eastern Europe and Russia. At the time when I was studying at the ICP, in the United States we were going through what I would call an historical election year. Rhetoric of patriotism, border protection, xenophobia, and immigration filled the news not only in the United States but also across the globe. I saw a lot of similarities in Russia, and decided to try to photograph, or at least understand, patriotism amongst youth in Russia.
A few of my Russian friends were very active in politics, and mentioned to me that they had a large number of young friends who were growing increasingly interested in patriotism and the military. In April of 2016, I happened to witness a cadet class that taught students to dismantle AK47s and to quickly dress and undress in biohazard suits. This became the first photograph I took for what would become a long-term project about patriotic education.
There is nothing inherently wrong with patriotism. However, these two terms (nationalism and patriotism) easily blur, and patriotic rhetoric can lead to nationalistic thinking. This is why I decided to focus on patriotic education, starting with patriotic clubs, patriotic classes and patriotic camps throughout the year. Access was difficult, but I had the advantage of speaking Russian, of having prior experience living in the country, and also I was a student at the time. Being young and a student in New York opened many doors for me. The individuals I met were curious about my life, why I spoke their language, and how I ended up in the middle of patriotic and historical war camps.
My aim is to continue along the same theme of my prior project in Russia, but here in the United States, focusing on patriotism among youth. While I was photographing and working in Russia, I saw many parallels to my own country. I think the phenomenon I see happening in Russia is not unique to itself, but it is global and widespread, and something that Americans can relate to. While we do not have the same style of patriotic camps or club, on an ideological level, the rhetoric is very similar, which is why I am dedicating this year and next to work on these themes and topics.
I want to continue to explore motivations and issues surrounding nationalism and patriotic fervor. I want to focus on how youth are taught these ideologies. Personally, I think this year in particular is an incredibly interesting to time to have a conversation about what it means to be patriotic, and how young people are responding to their political atmosphere.
I also believe that in order to create significant media and photographs that create change, it is necessary to engage in long-term research and commitment to a region and topic, and this is my goal in photography – to commit myself to long-term projects and work. This fellowship with Reveal allows for the freedom to do just that.
I grew up fascinated by communication – linguistics and music in particular. Incredibly introverted, I was always interested in listening to those around me, and I think I realized early on in life how easily verbal communication fails. I found what I was looking for immediately with music and literature. As a teenager, I had a friend give me a camera and introduce me to photography. And photography became a different form of listening to those around me, a more private form. Unlike my experience with instruments, my camera became something I used in solitude as more of an escape. I began to experiment with photographing those closest to me, starting with my siblings. My older sister had been struggling with an eating disorder for a few years, and had begun to open up to me about her experiences. I decided to photograph her while she shared her feelings with me, something I was incredibly nervous to do. I was unsure how she would respond, how it would affect our relationship, and how the images would feel. However, the experience of seeing my sister through my camera, the vulnerability on both ends, was monumental for me. It was an experience that allowed me to hear her in a different volume. I could expand on this for a long time – but this, really, is how I became truly fascinated with photography.
The dual messages of “America first” and “Americanism” can be found not only at the forefront of current political movements, but in the pages of literature and education taught at camps and clubs across the United States. Here, in this microcosm of a changing nation, youth straddle the vulnerability of adolescence and simultaneous stripping of individuality. In these settings, around 400,000 American youth are taught annually, often with military subtext, what it means to be an American. Photographed in twelve different states across a divided country, Beckon Us From Home is an ongoing photography project investigating the ideology of patriotism.
This work examines themes surrounding the interplay of statehood and adolescent identity, looking at topics such as the anxiety surrounding high school shootings, the role of social media and empathy, and the impact of coming of age in a polarized nation. The aim is to open dialogue around the nuanced and complicated ideas instilled in future generations of Americans. How are young people responding to our contemporary society, with all of its changes in belief systems?
Haar geloof in ‘long term research’ houdt ons van gemakkelijke krantenkreten en social-media-getwieter verwijderd. Ze is nu volop Duits aan ’t studeren dus mogen we zeker nieuw werk van haar in die richting verwachten. Ook in dit kleine landje hebben wij het voortdurend over deze termen en beschieten we elkaar al dan niet met de nodige en vooral onnodige culturele canons terwijl er waarschijnlijk meer verbindingen bestaan dan wij vermoeden. Maar ook dat is long term werk waard. Misschien wordt het tijd om oudere lijnen die ons verwijderen in meer gemeenschappelijke speel- en werkvelden op te lossen en elkaar beter te leren kennen in allerlei projecten waarvan dit blog hoopt een miniem onderdeel te mogen zijn.
Here, in this microcosm of a changing nation, youth straddle the vulnerability of adolescence and the simultaneous stripping of individuality.
Het ‘gebruiken’ van de typische eigenschappen eigen aan de adolescentenjaren is niet nieuw. We zullen in een van de volgende bijlages het hebben over ‘soldaten’ van 13-17 jaar in de Eerste Wereldoorlog, een bijzondere studie die nauw bij dit onderzoek aansluit. ‘L’ appel de la guerre, des adolescent au combat, 1914-1918, Manon Pignot, editions Anamosa, 2019. Het boek opent met een citaat van Victor Hugo uit ‘Les Orientales’:
‘Veux tu, pour me sourire, un bel oiseau des bois,
Qui chante avec un chant plus doux que le hautbois,
Plus éclatants que les cymbales?
Que veux-tu? Fleur, beau fruit, ou l’ oiseau merveilleux?
-Ami, dit l’ enfant grec, dit l’ enfant aux yeux bleus,
Je veux de la poudre et des balles.’
At the beginning of this project, I was looking for a standard definition of patriotism and nationalism to measure against. In the end, I found a myriad of contradicting perspectives and definitions that greatly differed from one another. I learned that these contradicting viewpoints contribute to a uniquely American perspective on patriotism, and also shows our divide, but at the same time allows room for the many counter-narratives across the country. These counter-narratives directly contradict and complicate the classic binary that is presented in the media. The classic binary of left vs. right /good vs. bad has been further elevated by the use of click-bait and easily digestible social media platforms, as well as the media organizations that have to adjust to ideas of likes, shares, and social redistribution. All of this has, in my opinion, reduced rather than expanded our content creation. This younger generation is incredibly mistrustful of media, questions every source, and is more fluid in their perceptions of politics. In general, they are far less polarized as the adults, and I hope it remains this way.
I learned the kinds of questions I am interested in asking, and the kinds of questions I believe are important to be asking, rather than these strictly left vs. right dichotomies that we are often presenting: are we as societies fracturing? Where are we at in terms of empathy? How are youth responding to our contemporary society, with all of its changes in belief systems? The purpose is not to provide answers or to lay out a narrative that can be easily digested. I hope the images and stories are complex enough for my audience to struggle with them. I hope these stories will bridge black and white thinking around these issues, and to bring nuanced to many subjects that remain cloaked in stereotype and presuppositions. I want to encourage dialogue about larger issues at hand and to push back against trends of nationalism and xenophobia. And I want these images to encourage critical self-reflection. I want these images to pose tough questions to our own identities, our own ideas of nationhood, our own childhood and experiences of coming of age, and our own struggles with all of these themes.