Sarah Blesener


Sarah Blesener is a documentary photographer based in New York City. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she studied Linguistics and Youth Development at North Central University. 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 in 2012, she studied at Bookvar Russian Academy in Minneapolis, concentrating on the Russian language. She is a recent graduate of the Visual Journalism and Documentary Practice program at the International Center of Photography in New York. Her latest work revolves around issues of youth culture and movements, focusing on Russia, Eastern Europe, and the United States. She is a recent recipient of the Alexia Foundation grant for her 2017 work in the United States, and a current fellow with Catchlight, working with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. She is also one of Anastasia Photo Gallery’s Emerging Photographers.


February 20 – April 1, 2018


Always remember, you are soldiers of God. And nobody in the entire history of the world has ever been as free as you are right now.” – Opening words from Utah Patriot Camp.


In patriotic camps and clubs around the United States, roughly 400,000 American children are taught annually, often with military subtext, what it means to be an American. Serving children as young as eight years old, these camps range in specialization from Young Marines to training future border patrol agents.


Sarah Blesener’s ongoing work examines the interplay of religion, love of country, and military-style training in the teaching of ‘new Americanism’ among youth across the United States. Over the last year, Blesener photographed patriotic clubs and camps in twelve states to discover this renewed embrace of the centuries-old theme of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. Here, in this microcosm of a changing nation, youth straddle the vulnerability of adolescence and the simultaneous stripping of individuality. Blesener’s aim for the series is to open dialogue around the nuanced and complicated ideals instilled in the future generation of Americans. The work on display is part of her ongoing series, Beckon Us From Home.


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Toy Soldiers

In 2015, the Russian government proposed a program—the Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016-2020—that called for an eight percent increase in patriotic youth and a ten percent increase in recruits for the Russian army by the year 2020. The agenda is heavily weighted towards militaristic training and disseminating patriotic ideologies. Over 200,000 youth are currently enrolled in patriotic educational clubs—10,000 in Moscow alone. Every club functions independently, each with their own structure and philosophy. According to one source, the program will cost somewhere around 1.7 billion rubles for its first two years (around 30 million USD).


Sarah Blesener’s ongoing project, “Toy Soldiers,” examines the subject of intergenerational war for adolescents in Russia. It focuses on non-governmental organizations—such as military-patriotic clubs, military sports associations, and the patriotic clubs formed under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church.


The work explores the question of nationalism and how its traditions and ideologies are passed down to younger generations. Toy Soldiers is the photographer’s search for an answer to the question “why are we in love with the fantasy of war?”