In America, in 2018, the word “patriotism” has taken on a particular meaning. “Patriotic” equals militaristic, patriarchal, obedient, maybe xenophobic; it evokes guns, red meat, the NFL, and the Republican National Convention. No matter how hard Democrats and liberals try to reclaim the word—to make the point that you can be “patriotic” while also believing that there are problems with the country—they haven’t been able to do it.
“Patriotic education” sounds, to liberal ears, like right-wing indoctrination. But it wasn’t always this way. Plenty of twentieth-century progressive educators saw the inculcation of a civic-minded, community-oriented flavor of patriotism as part of their duties. But after Vietnam-era protests against militarism, and the work of the civil rights movements in the sixties and seventies, the ideal of “patriotic education” fell out of fashion in American public schools. Today, national youth groups, like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, invoke patriotism in specialized ways, but don’t center it in their curricula. The onetime monoculture of mainstream childhood patriotism is largely gone.
When photographer Sarah Blesener went looking for groups of kids who were undergoing contemporary patriotic education, she found that this rightward shift in the word’s meaning made it easy for her to identify the kinds of groups she’d like to photograph. If the adults associated with a program used the word “patriotism” (or, say, “Americanism”) in a conversation or a mission statement, the group was of interest. Recording kids’ experiences at patriotic education camps and programs, she thought, would let her see how the political trickles down and becomes personal.
Blesener found access to some of these groups to be difficult—the adults in charge distrusted the media. And the leaders’ concern is legitimate. People outside of the kinds of circles who might send a child to a patriotism camp, who hear of Blesener’s project, expect to see a certain kind of image: a line of uniformed children, their rounded kid faces and gangly bodies forming a striking contrast to the militarism of their attitudes. Blesener started this work on patriotic education inspired by old propaganda photos of children in formation, but soon found the depiction of these militaristic moments to be limiting and glib. In her work, you do see plenty of uniforms, but there are also many pictures of kids dancing, swimming, or goofing around—kids in the process of growing up. “Youth,” Blesener said, “really destroy the binary we have between left and right, good and bad, right and wrong.”
The photographs of the Border Patrol Explorers, who are almost all Mexican American, go a long way to challenge that binary. These kids practice apprehending “immigrants,” learn to navigate the terrain around the border, and enter virtual-reality environments for training purposes, just like adult Border Patrol agents. Blesener’s understated images poke at our expectations about the kinds of children who might be interested in policing the border.
There are many weapons in these photographs—some replicas (like the ones used by the Border Patrol Explorers) and some real. Blesener tries not to over-rely on the shock value of these images, but the weapon photos inevitably fascinate. Last year, when she asked the kids why they had signed up, talk of illegal immigration and references to the 2016 election dominated. This year, after the events in Parkland, Florida, Blesener found that many of her subjects had joined the youth groups and camps to cope with their anxiety and fear about shootings. The firearms work and tactical training they underwent left them feeling that they might be better prepared to deal with an active shooter in their schools.
The hierarchical, strict nature of the programs, many of which are staffed by current or former members of the military, is also a draw. These programs (like many other American youth groups) require members to relinquish their phones for the duration. These kids are digital natives, accustomed to constant self-presentation via social media. But they thrive on this phone-less existence. “In the beginning, I was thinking, ‘Why would any fourteen-year-old want to be given a group identity?’” Blesener said. “But really it makes sense. They have the chance to be stripped of the fear and pressure of feeling unique.” In learning “patriotism,” they can relax into something bigger than themselves.