Much of the rhetoric that Americans were hearing during the 2016 presidential election was similar to what Blesener saw. Even before Trump’s decreed slogan, she saw at one camp a campaign called “Make Russia Great Again.” Nothing is new or confined to a single place, she realized; our ideas are universal and cyclical, repeating in different forms. Issues of nationalism, which has seen a surge in recent years, are not confined to Russia. “They’re global,” she says now, “and they’re very, very American.”
When Blesener began sharing her photos from “Toy Soldiers,” she was delighted to hear from editors she had always wanted to work with. But frustration quickly set in: Photos of kids with guns—albeit fake ones—were an automatic trigger for audiences in the States. So she also shared photos of boys playing on a beach and uniformed girls in a fit of giggles to paint a fuller picture of a coming-of-age story—one that might provoke discussion about a commonality with American ideals. “But in the end,” she said, “it was really like, ‘It’s Putin’s youth army.’” Clickbait boiled her work down to “Russian kids holding AK-47s,” and while the articles are often thoughtfully reported, too many readers look no further than the sensationalist headlines.
“I really thought the series would spark a kind of dialogue about our own election, about nationalism,” Blesener explained. But the timing with the U.S. election only escalated the generalizations about patriotism and nationalism that she was trying to unpack. Blesener didn’t want her subjects to feel betrayed. They were, in fact, disappointed, she said, but many laughed it off—they had assumed the American media would use the photos in that way.
The experience made her realize it was time for a new chapter. Last year, she began “Beckon Us From Home,” a project on patriotism and traditions instilled in young Americans. “In these settings,” Blesener reported in her artist statement, “around 400,000 American youth are taught annually, often with military subtext, what it means to be an American.” She visited the Young Marines program in Hanover, Pennsylvania; the Utah Patriot Camp in Herriman, Utah; and the Border Patrol Explorer Program in Kingsville, Texas, among others. Her project took her to 12 programs in 12 different states, many of which she had never visited before—it was eye-opening.