Artyom Baklashkin (17), a student at the local secondary school in the village of Diveevo, stands guard in an abandoned building with a group known as the “Survivalists,” April 6, 2016, Russia. Survivalists train young adults to survive future wars and post-apocalyptic life and meet weekly for tactical drills. They use air-soft guns for practice and competition. From “Toy Soldiers.”
In the mid-1950s, legendary photojournalist W. Eugene Smith set out on a three-week assignment to shoot the city of Pittsburgh. More than three years later, the photographer had amassed 22,000 negatives and around 1,200 master prints of the Steel City, which would set the standard for future long-form photo essays and projects after it. And while the precise reason Smith took such an extended amount of time may never be known, it does seem that the project required much more time in order to let the subtler and more nuanced aspects of the narrative unfold for him. It was the only way to really discover the essence, the truth, of the city.
“My principal concern is for honesty,” said Smith about his work as a photographer, “above all, honesty with myself.”
But today, that notion of honesty almost sounds archaic or absurd. What’s the point in carefully examining the complexity of a difficult subject in a long-term project when our culture has such a short attention span? Can a notion like honesty even exist in this era of “alternative facts” and fake news?
The answer to that question would be a resounding yes, if you asked those attending the 39th W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund’s annual awards ceremony on Oct. 17, 2018, in New York City. On that night, the fund, established in 1979 to support independent documentary photographers and photojournalists, awarded several photographers prizes for work that attempted to carry on W. Eugene Smith’s mission of documenting a vision of the world and staying true to that personal vision.
One of the winners was 26-year-old Minnesota-born Sarah Blesener, who now lives in New York and who won the fund’s Fellowship Grant for her powerful and moving project “Beckon Us From Home.” It’s the type of long-form, labor-intensive work that draws directly from Smith’s legacy of investigation, passion and commitment.
More importantly, Blesener’s work may just be the contemplative and thoughtful antidote for the fractured and mindless political maelstrom of our present era.
Starting Quickly And Learning The Importance Of Applying For Grants
Although just 26, Blesener already has an extensive list of accomplishments and awards. After attending and graduating from the International Center of Photography in New York, Blesener immediately headed to Russia to begin her first personal project, which she says might have been a bit risky, but the decision propelled her into working on long-form projects.
After her Russia project (“Toy Soldiers”), she worked on other personal projects, including one series called “Haven,” which was based in the U.S., in which Blesener followed a group of high school friends living in the South Bronx of New York City. At the same time, she freelanced on shorter assignments for a number of publications, including The New York Times, National Geographic and The Guardian, among others.
A key aspect of working on most long-term projects, says Blesener, is to apply for grants. “Everyone should be applying for grants, no matter what,” says Blesener. “I think there are a lot of funding opportunities available right now [because] people are really looking for truthful, genuine and articulate storytelling.”
Another important reason to apply for grants is that it allows photographers autonomy over their work. Here’s a case in point: When Blesener completed “Toy Soldiers,” she was disillusioned with how her work was perceived after being published: “When I had the work published, the response from the media and public was not what I had hoped for.” It wasn’t an inward-thinking dialogue about issues on a larger level. Part of the problem was that photo editors and publishers gravitated towards Blesener’s more sensational-looking images in the series, like images of teens with guns, and ran only those, instead of considering that there might be a larger, more intricate narrative.
But the photographer learned an important lesson: “If you’re just creating stories that cause fear, you’re doing the opposite of what photographers should do.” After a lot of self-reflection, she decided that she wanted to be able to work on something without any kind of boundaries, which meant she needed financial support (in the form of grants) in order to have the time to commit to a specific topic.
It’s why winning the Alexia Foundation grant, awarded to photographers working for social justice, “was monumental for me,” Blesener says. “It gave me the funding to work on a project, in depth, throughout the year, and it gave me time to explore the work,” which meant she could make mistakes and go down rabbit holes that might lead to dead ends.
“Beckon Us From Home”
More recently, Blesener has continued to work on long-form photography projects, most notably on her project “Beckon Us From Home,” for which she won the W. Eugene Smith Fellowship.
It’s a project with a big agenda. For starters, she’s looking at very broad, provocative themes that in many ways are at the center of the present political turmoil currently raging in Washington and around the U.S., as she noted at the awards ceremony when discussing her project: “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,” she said at the ceremony.
But in looking at how patriotic education is being taught across the states, she notes that even in her thesis, there are immediate questions she wants to ask, such as what is the definition of patriotism. “That definition differs so greatly across the country and from every person to the next,” says Blesener. “So my question is, ‘Whose version of patriotism are we teaching, and what does it even mean?”
To find out, Blesener traveled to 15 different states.
“I photographed different programs that were teaching kids. It was a mixture of military schools and Americanism, religion and patriotic education.” In her travels, she gradually began to get a vignette of what was happening all across the country and how the broad themes of patriotism, which have existed for decades, are now being connected “to the current political rhetoric that’s happening,” including fear-based ideologies heightened by external fears, she says.
Such a combustible combination of themes would undoubtedly be a challenge for any photographer, but they are particularly difficult for one like Blesener, who’s looking for subtly not agitprop. Blesener avoids this by limiting the demographic she’s covering: She focuses on adolescents.
To accurately document these programs and the students attending them, she hit the road and interviewed many students, focusing on teenagers, from the ages of 12 to 17 or 18 years old. “I was interviewing lots of kids around the country,” she says, to get an idea of how what’s happening around our country was affecting them developmentally: How is it changing their perspectives on being American? How is it impacting their adolescence and their response to things?
For example, at a nonprofit she visited in Wisconsin, the organization was teaching kids, including some as young as 11 years old, on how to do basic military drills and urban tactical drills, such as how to respond to active shooters in schools.
When Blesener asked why, the kids said, “‘We want to learn how to fight back.’”
Blesener said that the kind of anxiety that the students feel all the time around school impacted their decision to join these programs. Yet that specific, regional response in the Midwest—to pick up guns and engage in military drills—was almost the opposite reaction taking place in other parts of the country, where students were protesting for the need for more gun control.
Learning about such reactions didn’t sway Blesener from her commitment to remaining as nonjudgmental as possible. “I’m working with young people,” she says. “So, no matter what’s happening politically, they’re still just 14 and 15 years old.” It’s this innocence, she says, which counterbalances some of the tension when discussing more intense topics. “And that makes it a lot easier for me to remain in a spot where I’m open-minded,” she says.
Many students are also still just developing their ideas and concepts about the world. “These kids are not who they will be in 10 years,” Blesener says. Some may have no political awareness at all, right now, which in some ways, she says, makes them a lot easier to talk with than adults.
“The kids also muddy politics,” by sometimes being immature or cracking jokes, says Blesener, who admits, “they muddy my thinking about politics, as well. I think having this lens and perspective also keeps things interesting and surprising. It’s what keeps me interested and hopeful, at the same time. The tension that they bring to the work and into this subject is why I like it.”
It’s a tension, Blesener says, that seems to produce one of two emotions. “You want to be frustrated, but then you’re empathetic. And thinking about those two emotions together really creates some compelling stories for a photographer.”