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  • Radical Historians

The Photographic Record of Forced WWII Japanese Internment

Eighty years ago on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 designating the West Coast as a military zone. The order "empowered the US army to designate strategic military areas from which any and all people deemed a threat could be forcibly removed." The order was the direct result of a pervasive, racist hysteria sweeping the United States, largely exacerbated by politicians and media outlets, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although it wasn't explicitly stated, the order was used to target Asian Americans of Japanese ancestry.

Japanese owned store front, Dorothea Lange

A War Relocation Authority (WRA) was formed and beginning in March 1942, upwards of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were stripped of their civil liberties and forced to leave California, southern Arizona, and western Washington and Oregon, and sent to "Relocation Centers" across the United States. Those forcibly removed from their homes, businesses, education, and farms included first generation Japanese immigrants (Issei), American-born citizens (Nisei), and children of American-born citizens (Sansei).

During the early months of forced removal, Japanese Americans were held in "assembly centers" that "were often fairgrounds or racetracks, with every bit of space—even unclean horse stalls—being used as housing." They were then transferred to one of ten custom-built concentration camps across the United States that featured "bare wooden structures covered in tar paper hastily set up in desolate areas."* The ten camps were:

  • Topaz War Relocation Center, in Central Utah

  • Colorado River (Poston) War Relocation Center, in Arizona

  • Gila River War Relocation Center, Phoenix, in Arizona

  • Granada (Amache) War Relocation Center, in Colorado

  • Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, in Wyoming

  • Jerome War Relocation Center, Arkansas

  • Minidoka War Relocation Center, in Idaho

  • Rohwer War Relocation Center, in Arkansas

  • Tule Lake War Relocation Center, California

  • Manzanar War Relocation Center, in California.

Many Japanese Americans remained incarcerated in the camps through 1946, the year after Japan surrendered.*

Three American photographers, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Toyo Miyatake, enshrined the event into historical record, particularly life at Manzanar. Each photographer offered, "a vastly different perspective on what Japanese internment was like, their photos reflecting differences not only in style, but in the relationship each photographer had to this shameful chapter of U.S. history."*

Dorothea Lange

The American government was well aware of the image problem created by the "relocation" effort. The Roosevelt administration wanted to frame the event as "orderly, humane, and necessary" as possible and the WRA documented the removal effort through propaganda films, pamphlets and news footage.

The WRA also hired photographers to document the forced relocation process. Dorthea Lange, famous for her depression-era images taken during her employment with the Farm Security Administration, was hired to document the rapid forced removal process in California and later the Manzanar Relocation Camp.

Dorothea herself, was adamantly against internment, but she felt it was important to record what has happening.

“This is what we did. How did it happen? How could we? Now, I have never had a comfortable feeling about that war relocation job. All the difficulties of doing it were immense. The billboards that were up at the time, I photographed. Savage, savage billboards.” —

Dorothea Lange, in American Masters – Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning.

Many of Lange’s photos weren’t approved for circulation by the WRA. The army was deeply concerned with the highly emotional photo narrative Lange produced - one that accurately depicted the injustice of the relocation effort.

Lange was dismissed from the WRA just after four months of working for them and many of her images were impounded until the end of the war, when they were quietly placed in the National Archives.

Public knowledge of Lange’s photos only emerged 25 years later, when Lange’s former assistant requested they be pulled from the National Archives for a 1972 exhibit by the California Historical Society, titled Executive Order 9066. Lange’s images, widely seen through the traveling exhibit and accompanying literature, helped fuel the redress movement by third generation Japanese, Sansei. The movement led the way for reparations for the survivors with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The Act, signed by President Reagan, acknowledged the injustice of "internment," apologized for it, and provided a $20,000 cash payment to each person who was incarcerated.*

Ansel Adams

Arguably one of the most famous and prolific American photographers, Ansel Adams documented life at the Manzanar War Relocation Camp in 1943, at the request of his friend and camp director, Ralph Merritt.* The camp "was located in Inyo County, California, at the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains approximately 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles."*

Contrary to Lange's highly emotional and evocative photographs, Adams' photos have a more illusive beauty to them, depicting the landscape around the camps and the American life within them.

Adams tried to challenge internment in his own way, by depicting those forcibly living within Manzanar as patriotic, law-abiding Americans. Whether his original intent succeeded or not, his photographs depict an American population practicing their war-time sacrifice .

Because his photos featured “happy smiling faces and grand western landscapes," they were endorsed by the WRA and even allowed publication in Adams' 1944 book, Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. Through the book and an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Adams hoped his work "warned about the dangers of letting wartime hysteria justify depriving U.S. citizens of their freedom."* In a letter to his friend Nancy Newhall, the wife of Beaumont Newhall, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Adams wrote:

"Through the pictures the reader will be introduced to perhaps twenty individuals . . . loyal American citizens who are anxious to get back into the stream of life and contribute to our victory."

The book "received positive review and made the San Francisco Chronicle's bestseller list for March and April of 1945."*

One of many of the individuals forcibly living within Manzanar, photographed by Ansel Adams, was Japanese photographer Toyo Miyatake.

Toyo Miyatake

Toyo Miyatake was born on October 28, 1895, in Kagawa prefecture in Japan. He immigrated to the United States with his mother and two brothers in 1909 to join his father who had entered the US two years prior, and ran a confectionary shop in Los Angeles.

Miyatake was passionate about the arts. His first love was oil painting but at the advice of his mother, pursued photography to make a living. He attended a photography school in Little Tokyo, studied under master photographers Harry K. Shigeta, and Edward Weston and became an active member of the Japanese Camera Club of Little Tokyo. Miyatake married his wife, Hiro, in 1922 and soon after opened his own photography studio, in October 1923.*

At the age of 47, Miyatake, his wife Hiro, and their four children, were forcibly incarcerated at Manzanar War Relocation Camp. Internees could take whatever they could carry with them to the camps, so when Miyatake learned that he would be incarcerated at Manzanar, he decided to smuggle a lens and film holder in with him. A few months into life at Manzanar, Miyatake asked a Issei camp carpenter to build him a wooden box with a hole carved out at one end, to accommodate a lens. With this makeshift camera, he began documenting life inside Manzanar.

"As a photographer, I have a responsibility... I have to take all the pictures in Manzanar to keep a record of what's going on here.”*

Miyatake began slow and quietly. He only took pictures at dusk or dawn, without people in the shots, and developed the film at night while other slept. His son Archie later said, “[He was] sure taking a lot of chances," but it was a risk worth taking because he knew that, “this kind of thing should never happen again."*

The photographer eventually gained sympathy from camp director, and friend of Ansel Adams, Ralph Merritt. After asking the director if he could set up a photo studio at the camp, "Merritt, who learned about Miyatake from Edward Weston, consented with the provision that Miyatake only load and set the camera, and a Caucasian assistant snap the shutter." Eventually the restriction was lifted and Toyo Miyatake became the official camp photographer.

Miyatake's images conveyed an intimacy with camp life that Lange and Adams were unable to capture.

Visiting photographers, such as Lange and Adams, were also directed to not photograph the barbed wire that enclosed the camp. As an inmate of the camp, Miyatake was was able to offer the most honest photographic lens.


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