Sarah Blesener, who was awarded a spot on the 2018 list of PDNs 30 New and Emerging Photographers To Watch, photographs children learning what it means to be an American in military-style patriotic clubs and camps across the U.S. Every year roughly 400,000 American youth participate in training programs like the Young Marines, whose students pledge to “never do anything that would bring disgrace or dishonor upon my God, my country, and its flag, my parents, myself, or the Young Marines.” Other organizations prepare youth to become future border patrol agents.
Since early 2017, Blesener has visited camps in 12 states. In the process she discovered a “renewed embrace of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny” acknowledges the press release from Anastasia Photo where Blesener’s images are the subject of a current exhibition called The Making Of A Patriot.
Blesener’s work “examines the interplay of religion, love of country, and military-style training in the teaching of ‘new Americanism’ in youth across the U.S.,” states the press release.
In an email, Blesener told PDN she focuses on adolescents because she’s “interested in how ideologies and traditions are passed down to younger generations.” She hopes the work will provide insight into the lives of American’s youth from the Bronx, NY, to rural North Dakota and “open a dialogue around the nuanced and complicated ideals instilled in the future generations of Americans.”
“It’s an extraordinarily interesting time to create work on this kind of topic in our country, where everything and everyone seems so incredibly divided,” said Blesener, adding, “patriotism permeates our politics, our culture, our everyday life, as do accusations of unpatriotic behavior.”
Gaining access to the camps was not easy, nor was building the narrative or capturing the visuals. “Persistence had to become second nature,” Blesener told PDN. “When I was faced with continual rejection with access, I learned to find other ways to photograph, whether in a more intimate setting outside the camps and clubs or in a more metaphorical way.”
Blesener said while working on the series she learned the importance of creating relatable images. “The last thing I want to do is create work that is untouchable, that creates fear and separation.”
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