Credit: Sarah Blesener

We’re honored to welcome aboard Sarah Blesener, a winner of this year’s inaugural Catchlight Fellowship for photojournalism. Blesener, who took an unconventional route to photography, has captured a variety of subjects with stunning precision: female soldiers in Ukraine, Trump voters in middle America, teenagers in the South Bronx, and more.   

Over the next year at Reveal, she’ll explore the rise of nationalism among America’s youth. Her project is a thematic continuation of “Toy Soldiers,” a series she shot at Russian military training schools for teens.

We caught up with Blesener this week to learn a bit about her history and approach.

When and where did you begin your photography career?

I attended the International Center of Photography’s Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism program recently, graduating in June of 2016. Prior to moving to New York City to attend this program, I had been a freelance photographer, living in between my hometown of Minneapolis, MN and Eastern Europe.

Growing up in the Midwest, I had never imagined myself becoming a photographer. On the contrary, I finished high school when I was 15, and decided to enter flight school. I decided to fly small private planes, and had no consideration of journalism or photography at the time. However, photography is connected to my interest in literature and language. My greatest inspirations for photography are not artists but writers: Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Hesse Brodsky – writers who exposed me to worlds I had never encountered, and who allowed me to begin to think narratively. I began to photograph when I was 16, starting with my family. I tried to photograph the stages of life my brother and sister were at, and this personal approach to documentary photography is what led me to pursue photography full-time.

I left flight school to study Youth Development and International Studies in Minneapolis, where I also studied the Russian language at a linguistics school. From here, I left to Eastern Europe and Russia to work on personal projects about youth and youth culture in these areas. However, it was not until studying at the ICP that I truly began to understand narrative and documentary photography, and the impact of this approach to storytelling in journalism.

You covered a variety of issues – from the 2016 RNC to women soldiers in Ukraine. Is there a unifying theme you’re exploring across your work?

I am consistently drawn to youth and issues surrounding youth culture. The theme that has linked my work from my early stages of a photographer, from working with youth in the South Bronx, to my work in Russia. Beyond this larger topic, the themes that I’m also exploring have a lot to do with identity, tradition, and belief. The overlap of these themes is why I began photographing patriotic education in Russia.

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.

In your “Toy Soldiers” series, you explored the idea of “patriotic education” among young Russians. How did this project come about? Was access an issue?

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.

What issues will you be exploring for Reveal?

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.

Where can people find and follow your work?

Instagram: @sarahblesener

Twitter: @sarah_blesener

Website: www.sarah-blesener.com

Byard Duncan is a reporter and producer for  engagement and collaborations for Reveal. He manages Reveal’s Reporting Networks, which provide more than 1,000 local journalists across the U.S. with resources and training to continue Reveal investigations in their communities. He also helps lead audience engagement initiatives around Reveal’s stories and assists local reporters in elevating their work to a national platform. In addition to Reveal, Duncan’s work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The California Sunday Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. He was part of Reveal’s Behind the Smiles project team, which was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2019. He is the recipient of two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a National Headliner Award, an Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, and two first-place awards for feature storytelling from the Society of Professional Journalists and Best of the West. Duncan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.