Columbia Journalism Review Discovers Nuance and Poetry in Toy Soldiers


Today, Columbia Journalism Review published an article entitled “Photographer who captured youth patriotism in Russia turns lens to Trump’s America,” which discusses Toy Soldiers, from Sarah Blesener, winner of the The Alexia 2017 grant.

The article looks at how Blesener has approached the topic of patriotism in first Russia and, now, in the U.S. Blesener explains why and how she was able to go beyond basic imagery of guns to find the moments that reveal identity.

“After a few months, I thought to myself, ‘I can’t keep photographing kids with guns. It’s only going to freak the public out.’ I had to take a poetic approach and find the nuanced moments that I thought spoke more to identity and youth; aspects that are more important than guns and guns and guns,” Blesener says in the article. “Our aim as photographers should be to fight fear. Fear doesn’t produce anything but more fear and propaganda.”

Blesener further discusses the challenges she has found in the U.S., with some groups she has approached fearful of being unfairly labelled as “alt-right.” She notes that one of her techniques for entering a community is couch surfing. When she shares a home with someone who lives in the area she is covering, she can have conversations and learn about a place more deeply. It also means she doesn’t disconnect at the end of the day, but stays with it.

So far, Blesener has visited Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York and Kentucky working with groups like the National Rifle Association, the American Legion and high school ROTC programs.

Syracuse University Alexia Chair Mike Davis is also quoted in the article, explaining why photography and photographers need to be both expansive and independent from the mandates of a written article. Grants and fellowships from organizations like the Alexia Foundation give the freedom to deeply delve and convey a subject, instead of just illustrating one.

“I think photographs that only convey information don’t have a lot of value,” says Davis. “In a ‘words versus pictures’ realm—sadly, that’s where things have been, and I think it’s starting to be a different environment now—words are the starting point and pictures have to follow. That cripples a photographer the same way it would a writer if you told them which verbs they had to use.”

The Alexia Foundation is proud to be among those who help make profound work like Blesener’s possible. We thank all of you, our supporters, for allowing us to do that.

The article is a fantastic examination of Blesener’s work, and we’re pleased Mike Davis was able to bring insight to it. Read the full article here.

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