Dorothea Lange and the Japanese-American Internment
This is the second in a series of explorations for Anchor Editions, my new project where I dig into the history of art that I find interesting. For this edition, I'm donating a portion of the proceeds from print sales to the ACLU, and you can read more about that at the end of this post. I’ve written more about Anchor Editions here if you’re curious.
“A date which will live in infamy.”
December 7, 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. That same morning, FBI agents and Military Police began the systematic arrest and imprisonment of Japanese-American citizens—primarily community leaders, clergy, newspaper publishers and journalists—in Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States.
On February 19, 1942, driven by increasing undercurrents of racism in the media and politics, and at the urging of his military commanders, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in which he gave authority to his Secretary of War to establish military zones covering Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona, and to exclude and remove any people from these zones for reasons of “military necessity.”
In March of 1942, the military began posting Civilian Exclusion Orders, which ordered “all persons of Japanese ancestry” to report to Civil Control Stations to register, and begin the process of “evacuation” to nearby Assembly Centers and eventual consolidation into Relocation Centers in remote areas across the Western United States. Within the next weeks, all Japanese people living in the west coast—approximately 120,000—were rounded up and forced to quickly store, sell, or give up their homes, businesses, and property. They were imprisoned in concentration camps through World War II, until the camps were slowly decommissioned by 1946. Over two-thirds of those imprisoned were U.S. citizens, and many more had lived in the United States for decades but were prevented from becoming naturalized citizens by existing immigration laws.
A Photographic Record
The War Relocation Authority, the government agency established to oversee the roundup and imprisonment of those subject to the Exclusion Orders, hired photographer Dorothea Lange to document the “evacuation” and “relocation” efforts in order to make a photographic record of the process. Lange, well known for her Farm Security Administration photographs of dust-bowl migrants in California in the 1930s, was eager to take the commission, despite being opposed to the effort, as she “believed a true record of the evacuation would be valuable in the future.”
Lange worked nonstop for the next months, traveling to many cities and towns around California to document the Japanese people as they prepared for “evacuation,” as they were herded onto buses and trains, and moved into temporary housing in barracks and stables at horse racetracks and fairgrounds across the west coast. She then spent time at Manzanar, one of the largest concentration camps, situated in the eastern desert of Southern California where she continued to document the conditions and the people who were imprisoned. Despite much resistance from the camp authorities and military police, and several constraints on what she could photograph, she produced over 800 photographs during her assignment.
Impounded and Suppressed
The military commanders that reviewed her work soon realized that Lange’s contrary point of view was evident through her photographs, and seized them for the duration of World War II, even writing “Impounded” across some of the prints. At some point, the photos were quietly deposited into the National Archives, where they remained, largely unseen, until 2006. Not much is known about who decided to suppress the photographs, or under what legal authority, but Lange biographer Linda Gordon notes, “my hunch is that in this wartime situation, army officials felt authorized to make many censorship decisions unilaterally.” She also points out that “Governmental reluctance to Lange’s photographs continues now, well after the internment’s wrong has been recognized and apologized for. For example, the National Park Service’s Web site on Manzanar includes ninety-one photographs, of which eight are by Lange: none are among her most significant, and only one is at all critical.”
Lange’s photographs are not only a useful and informative record of what happened leading up to and including the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, they are also an exceptional record of her own evolution as a documentary photographer. She continued to develop her portrait-focused style portraying the people of the camps, but also expanded her view to include the environment and the conditions of the roundup and the camps. She followed families as they made arrangements to dispose of their farms and businesses prior to the “evacuation,” and as they adapted to their new lives in the concentration camps. She recorded the evidence that the prisoners continued to lean on their own creativity and resilience to make their environment more hospitable despite the harsh reality of their situation.
Spending time looking through all of her photos, it’s fascinating to get a sense of what she noticed, and observe how she positioned herself and her camera relative to her subjects. She is acutely aware of the emotion in the scenes she captures, and when posing subjects or capturing a candid moment, she raises or lowers her camera to control the viewer’s perspective and elicit an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject. Her compositions are almost always carefully framed, and in only a couple frames does she suggest crops by drawing lines on the negatives.
To learn more about Dorothea Lange and her photographs, check out the wonderful book, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. The editors Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihoro publish an excellent selection of her photographs and original captions, and the accompanying essays they each wrote provide excellent commentary and background for Lange’s photographs and for the broader story of the arrest and incarceration of Japanese-American citizens.
Since Lange’s photographs were commissioned by the government and are in the public domain, I posted a collection of my favorites alongside some quotes from some of the people who experienced the “evacuation” and “relocation” firsthand. The quotes are gathered primarily from Gary Y. Okihoro’s essay in Impounded, and provide an eye-opening and sometimes heartbreaking interplay with Lange’s photographs.
Selling Prints to Support the ACLU
I’m making limited edition prints of a few of Lange’s photographs, and I will be donating 50% of the proceeds from sales of these prints to the ACLU, who were there during WWII handling the two principal Supreme Court cases fighting against the government’s mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans, and who have pledged to continue to fight against further unconstitutional civil rights violations. Their fight seems especially important today given the current tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and talk of national registries and reactionary immigration policies.
You can browse the prints for sale at the Anchor Editions Shop.
- Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment
- John Armor and Peter Wright, Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams, Commentary by John Hersey
- Densho: Controlling the Historical Record: Photographs of the Japanese American Incarceration
- Jonah Engel Bromwich, New York Times: Trump Camp’s Talk of Registry and Japanese Internment Raises Muslims’ Fears
- Carl Takei, Los Angeles Times: The incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II does not provide a legal cover for a Muslim registry
- ACLU: A Dark Moment in History: Japanese Internment Camps
- WW2 Japanese Relocation Camp Internee Records
- National Archives: Central Photographic File of the War Relocation Authority