Far from any city and train station in the depths of a vast valley in Russia, you can see uniformed children drilling and hear fake weapons rumbling. Campers are picking mushrooms in the surrounding forests. The smell of hot soup and borsch rises from tents all around. A 25-year-old American is hesitantly clutching her camera. She and her friend walked an hour to get there. But the young photographer is not there to participate in the camp. She went there out of pure curiosity.
Sarah Blesener’s Russian roots come from her father. She lived in Moscow for a few years immersed in poems and novels, aimed to learn the language. “I was fascinated by long-form narrative styles. I knew I loved story telling but I had no artists in my family thus I was never exposed to photography and art,” Sarah says.
The first flash of inspiration appeared when she was 19 years old and traveled to Haiti during the earthquake in 2010. Although she was “overwhelmed by the amount of insanity, suffering and trauma” she discovered an undeniable affinity to photojournalism.
Heartened by this experience she moved from Minneapolis to New York to study photography. One of her teachers encouraged her to challenge herself instead of ticking the boxes of the traditional journalistic milestones and embark on her own projects. Sarah flew back to Russia, where she came across with the topic of patriotic summer camps.
“I followed my friend’s daughter in school and photographed her classes,” says Sarah who then realized she wanted to raise the question of how kids are taught about patriotism and national identity.
The global discussion about these camps is loaded with controversy and extremity. The belief that children are being trained for war is part of the public discourse. The Moscow Times states that the number of recruits drafted by the Russian armed forces is steadily increasing as a result of Putin’s program on implementing more national ideology in education.
In these summer camps kids are not just physically trained but also receive education. They are also known for rather being rather closed to the public. However, Sarah managed to get in.
“It helped that I speak Russian,” says Sarah and adds, “I’m also a female and I was young back then. I also look very young.” Then she notes with some bitterness, “A lot of these places simply didn’t take me seriously.” That was her entry ticket into the camps since they didn’t consider her as a threat of any kind.
Sarah says that as soon as one camp welcomed her, she got invitations from the others.
In these camps children sleep in tents, play volleyball, and climb rocks. They also learn to fire guns, throw knives, and lob grenades. They are given the opportunity to try out military life and play war. “They are all pretending,” Sarah points out, it’s not a real military situation.
Presumptions occur in the American media, that the parents are forcing their kids to participate. Sarah experienced it differently. The kids were the ones who wanted to go. Some were motivated to be a part of a community, some wanted to learn more about their grandfather who was in the military.
“The camps had a social media popularity as well,” says Sarah.
She spent most of her time talking to the kids in the camp. They were fascinated by the fact that she was from New York. “They kept asking if I met any famous people,” Sarah remembers. She had to disappoint them that the city is actually “not that glamorous.”
Although her presence was strange at first, once they get used to it no one really minded her walking around capturing their liberated and happy moments as well as the quiet and retreat ones. Sarah says, “they really contradicted the hypothesis I had about these camps.”
Zooming out, the harsh political reality, heated by patriotic and nationalistic emotions, the camps are often used to reinforce a propaganda. Either from American or Russian side, headlines like “brainwashed youth” appear. People don’t have any other information, but what they get from the news.
The everyday life of the camps, however, is much less dramatic. “Every night they have hot tea, cookies and karaoke with bonfire,” says Sarah, “similarly to high school dances where kids are dancing awkwardly and weaving romances.”
Sarah was looking for the “real, sensitive and raw moments” when the trainings were ending, and everyone was exhausted. When they lied down, shared their secrets or insecurities with each other.
“I trusted my gut and I went literally behind the scenes,” she says.
Even if the military actions were in front of her eyes, she had to turn her camera away from the obvious towards what was happening on the sideline. “I purposefully put down my camera during the trainings,” she says.
She spent six months working on her photographic series which were first published during the US election year in 2016. Everyone was focusing on Russia. People were curious of every detail. “There was a lot of xenophobic tension from the US part,” Sarah recalls.
“They made use my pictures for their propaganda by highlighting one simple aspect of them,” she says “which wasn’t my intention at all.” At this point she realized how harmful was the misinterpretation of media and politics was.
What made her furious was the fact that Americans were not critical about the idea of these summer programs but the Russian origin of them.
“What is nationalistic, what is patriotic? Why is it depending on the flag that we’re wearing?” Sarah proposed these questions in herself. These made her turn to self-criticism.
She decided to reveal the other side of the coin. She flew back to the USA with the thought “we have the same camps.” Sarah made a similar series about the American summer camps as a comparison to the Russian ones.
Eventually the pictures were mixed and composed into one series of photos. “Now, you cannot tell who is American and who is Russian. It allows people to talk about this subject on a larger level,” says Sarah.
The final product of the two years long project was featured at the World Press Photo competition and won the first prize in its category in 2019.
The images traveled around all the continents, hundreds of thousands of people wandered in front of them, initiating conversations. Sarah took the photographs back to the camps, even though she was worried about the political framing.
“I thought they will feel I fooled and betrayed them,” she says.
To her greatest surprise, the welcoming reactions were mostly warm and positive. They liked the photos and shrugged their shoulders at the interpretation of the press, saying “oh, yes, that is American media.”