JERSEY CITY — Photographer Sarah Blesener struck fear in American media with her 2016 series Toy Soldiers, in which she documented Russian tweens and teens partaking in government-mandated “patriotic education” programs to usher them into the country’s armed forces. That series comprises the first part of her project Beckon Us From Home. For the second part, she draws a striking, though not unsurprising, parallel between patriotic programs in the United States and Russia. Between 2016 and 2019, she traveled to 12 different states to photograph American kids — between 8 and 18 years old — training in US patriotic programs, where American history lessons overlap with bible study sessions, military training, and learning how to survive in the wilderness. She has published her work in photo essays for National Geographic, The New York Times, California Sunday Magazine, The Guardian, and Virginia Quarterly Review.
While the photographs reflect perceptions of the two nations as ruthless global powers seeking to maintain their dominance in part by subjecting their youth to nationalist rhetoric, Blesener also makes space for viewers to broaden their perspectives, and shows that villainy isn’t limited to Putin’s regime.
Blesener’s exhibition at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, also titled Beckon Us From Home, features only part two, the US photos. The gallery features a handful of exhibitions that are free and open to the public, though only as guided tours (unfortunately limiting the time one can spend with the artworks). Upon entering the gallery space, viewers are confronted with a single picture on a white wall. The image (untitled, like all of Blesener’s works) is a close-up of three teenagers resting in a field in Watford, North Dakota. It is an idyllic setting that foregrounds the kids’ perspectives rather than those of the adults in charge. This suggests that they have personal motivations for taking part in the youth camps.
Among the various reasons the photographs’ subjects are in training, a significant one is the Parkland massacre. Many high school students want to be able to protect their friends and themselves in case of a school shooting. Also, some participants challenge the preconceived notions of some viewers — for instance, Mexican-American teens training to be Border Patrol officers, a job that can earn them upwards of $52,000 a year.
On the far-right wall in the main space, a photo of teens praying before dinner at a Young Marines ball in Hanover, Pennsylvania is juxtaposed with one of a pair of legs sticking out of a parked car. The latter photo shows a teen in Omaha, Nebraska — who was off duty from military training at the time and had been out to dinner with her mother — jumping through the window mid-motion in order to escape the freezing weather. It expresses a freewheeling, youthful spirit in sharp contrast to the formality of the first photo. Such juxtapositions are not apparent in the format of Blesener’s photo essays.
Mana’s website describes the exhibition as illustrative of “new Americanism”; historian Jill Lepore’s essay “A New Americanism” offers a vital analysis of this phrase. She discusses how “[c]harlatans, stooges, and tyrants” have weaponized nationalism to “prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence.” Lepore believes that nationalism, in the form of Americanism, can return to a more open-minded state, as it was regarded during the era of Reconstruction by the likes of Frederick Douglass.
Blesener’s photographs seem to counter this idea, suggesting this possibility evades these camps. Instead, they use their participants’ motivations and worries — from yearning for new friends to wanting to be prepared for school shootings — to justify their virulent “military subtext,” as Blesener once put it. For this reason, a tragedy like Parkland, in the context of the camps, becomes a pretense for more people to learn how to use guns rather than an impetus to advocate for stricter gun laws. With Beckon Us From Home, Blesener offers a thoughtful account of this strain of patriotism, while laying bare the camps’ equation between loving one’s country and aggressively defending it. They exemplify “new Americanism” solely in their being a contemporary phenomenon — otherwise, the ideology behind them is nothing new.
Beckon Us From Home continues at Mana Contemporary (888 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey) through September 3.