1. Archive

Images of a shameful past

During the winter of 1942, in the first heated months of America's war with Japan, the U.S. government ordered tens of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them American citizens, to report to assembly centers throughout the West for transfer to internment camps. The infamous episode has been widely chronicled in books and memoirs, as well as in famous photos by Ansel Adams.

But now close to 800 new images from the period by photographer Dorothea Lange have been unearthed in the National Archives, where they had lain neglected for a half-century after having been impounded by the government.

Adams portrayed the internees in the now-infamous camp at Manzanar, Calif., in heroic poses, lighted against the backdrop of the majestic Sierras mountains. Lange's images - nearly a hundred of which are being published for the first time - tell a starkly different story.

The pictures in Impounded (W.W. Norton, $29.95) bear the hallmarks of Lange's distinctive documentary style. (She is best known for her photographs of migrant farmers in the Depression for the Farm Security Administration.) Seemingly unstaged and unlighted, the pictures of the internees compress intense human emotion into carefully composed frames.

"They tell us that conditions in the camps were much worse than most people think," said Linda Gordon, a historian at New York University who edited the book with Gary Y. Okihiro, a historian at Columbia University. Both also contributed essays.

Lange's work unflinchingly illustrates the reality of life during this extraordinary moment in American history when about 110,000 people were moved with their families, sometimes at gunpoint, into horse stalls and tar-paper shacks where they endured brutal heat and bitter cold, filth, dust and open sewers.

Big Brother's rules

In his essay Okihiro describes the atmosphere in which the deportations took place. He quotes from an editorial in the Los Angeles Times from the period: "A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched - so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents - grows up to be Japanese, not an American." Yet, Gordon said, "The U.S. government had deliberately suppressed reports from FBI and military intelligence that concluded that Japanese-Americans posed no security risk." The War Relocation Authority hired Lange to document the internments, possibly to demonstrate that the detainees were not being mistreated and international law was not being violated.

But at nearly all of the 21 locations Lange visited, the government tried to restrict her. At the assembly centers and at Manzanar she was not allowed to photograph the wire fences, the watchtowers with searchlights, the armed guards or any sign of resistance. She was discouraged from talking to detainees, and nearly was fired when one of her photographs appeared on a Quaker pamphlet denouncing the internment.

Immeasurable loss

Lange, who died in 1965, showed families who had abandoned their homes and property. Because they couldn't bring their belongings with them, they were often forced to sell them at reduced prices. In harrowing images that echo the Nazi roundups of Jews, Lange's photographs document long, weaving lines of well-dressed people, numbered tags around their necks, waiting to be processed and sent to unknown destinations.

"There is no way to really know how much they lost," Okihiro said in an interview, but he cited a 1983 study commissioned by a congressional committee estimating that, adjusted for inflation and interest, internees had lost $2.5-billion to $6.2-billion in property and entitlements. Okihiro writes that one man, Ichiro Shimoda, was so distraught he tried to commit suicide by biting off his own tongue. When that failed, he tried to asphyxiate himself. Finally he climbed a camp fence, and a guard shot him to death.

At assembly points in Hawaii, Okihiro writes, some detainees were forced to strip naked and had their body cavities searched.

Upon arrival at the assembly centers - including the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif., a former racetrack - the internees passed through two lines of soldiers with bayonets trained on them. Lange was not allowed to photograph the soldiers, but she did manage some stark images of the horse stalls where the families lived, pictures that are included in the book.

A hidden history

In many of her pictures the subjects look away from the camera, accentuating their sadness and anxiety. Yet Lange also emphasizes the detainees' essential Americanness: a U.S. Army volunteer helping his mother and family prepare for their internment, a smiling boy with a baseball bat, another boy reading a comic book.

Somehow these photographs disappeared. Gordon said historians did not know exactly what happened to them beyond that the Army deposited them in the National Archives.

In shooting the photos of the internees, Lange was determined to produce an accurate record of what she had seen, Gordon said.

"She was above all a portrait photographer, interested in the individual,'' Gordon said. "In these photographs she is sometimes ignoring the individual to capture the whole experience. But they always show her beautiful, very classical compositions."


Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment

By Dorothea Lange, Linda Gordon (editor), Gary Y. Okihiro (editor)

W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $29.95