TOY SOLDIERS (2016-17)

In 2015, a proposed program from the Russian government entitled the “Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens in 2016-2020” called for an eight percent increase in patriotic youth within the next ten years, and a ten percent increase in new recruits for the Russian armed forces.Over 200,000 youth in Russia are currently enrolled in patriotic clubs, with 10,000 in Moscow alone.

While focusing on Russia, the aim of this project is to investigate the ideologies and traditions passed down to younger generations. I had hoped these images would spark conversations about the polarization and nationalist rhetoric that marked the last United States presidential campaign, as well as trends happening globally. However, they did not. When these photographs were published in 2016, the overwhelming response from the American media and public centered on Russian nationalism and the moral dilemmas surrounding militarization of youth. The most common reaction was that “other people are nationalists, but Americans are simply patriots.”

In light of this frustration, I began to photograph similar themes of patriotic ideology and educational programs across the United States in 2018, in an attempt to discuss these themes on a larger level. The resulting project became Beckon Us From Home. In later publications, these two projects, Toy Soldiers and Beckon Us From Home, have been published together as a single project. When presented as a whole, it can be nearly impossible to distinguish which programs are Russian or American. This approach intentionally causes further confusion about ideological allegiance, patriotism, and nationalism, in an attempt to re-examine our relationship to our beliefs surrounding our own traditions and nations.

Toy Soldiers was photographed while Sarah Blesener was a student in the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism course at the International Center of Photography, completed with the support of the Alexia Foundation, the CatchLight Fellowship. Toy Soldiers was exhibited at IPP 2017, Fondo Malerba per la Fotografia in Italy, as well as Zimmerli Art Museum in New Jersey and the VII International Meeting of Acampa for Peace and the Right to Refuge in Spain.

Texts and Reviews:
Winner of the World Press Photo Long-Term Project category, 2019
Simon Shuster, TIME Lightbox, 2016
The Guardian, 2017
Alex Scott, ABC, 2016
Winner of the Social Documentary Network Grant, 2017
Award of Excellence for the POYi, Issue Reporting Story, 2017
Ryan Bell, Columbia Journalism Review, 2017
Stephen Frailey, Interview in Dear Dave Magazine, 2020