Documentary Photographer Sarah Blesener Wins Prestigious Photo-J Fellowship

Documentary photographer Sarah Blesener Wins Prestigious Photo-J Fellowship

Sarah Blesener accepting the fellowship grant at the 39th annual W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund awards ceremony.

Former LIFE magazine photographer and renowned photojournalist W. Eugene Smith once wrote about his work as a photographer: “I am a compassionate cynic. Yet I believe I am one of the most affirmative photographers around. I have tried to let the truth be my prejudice. It has taken much sweat. It has been worth it.” Each statement almost sounds paradoxical, yet in this era of “alternative facts” and fake news, perhaps Smith may just have been prescient of today’s surreal political and social climate.

On October 17, 2018, the fund that bears his name, the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, which was established in 1979 to support independent documentary photographers and photojournalists, honored several photographers at the fund’s 39th annual awards ceremony. Among the winners was 26-year-old, Minnesota-born Sarah Blesener, who won the fund’s fellowship grant for her powerful and moving project “Beckon Us from Home.”

Blesener, who now lives in New York City, noted at the event that night and in her video for the project, “The dual messages of ‘America first’ and ‘Americanism’ can be found not only at the forefront of current political movements, but in the pages of literature and education taught at camps and clubs across the United States. Here, in this microcosm of a changing nation, youth straddle the vulnerability of adolescence and simultaneous stripping of individuality.” She goes on to say, “Photographed in twelve different states across a divided country, ‘Beckon Us From Home’ is a multimedia project investigating how a nation passes down traditions to new generations.”

Documentary photographer Sarah Blesener Wins Prestigious Photo-J Fellowship
Cover (left) and page featuring Sarah Blesener, winner of the fund’s 2018 fellowship grant (right), from the brochure for the 39th Annual W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund: Grant for Humanistic Photography, on October 17, 2018.

It’s an eye-opening and startling project—even in the world of photojournalism. In part, it’s because the project is complex, nuanced and timely, incorporating some very broad themes, including nationalism, fear, indoctrination, economics, religion and motivation. Yet the project always remains very focused, which Blesener says is because she has chosen to focus on youth. (To see Blesener’s video of her project application, click here.)

We’ll be featuring a portfolio of Blesener’s work, which includes work from “Beckon Us From Home,” in the December 2018 issue of Digital Photo Pro magazine.

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