200 Ansel Adams Photographs Expose the Rigors of Life in Japanese Internment Camps During WW II


Images cour­tesy of the Library of Con­gress.

Actor George Takei was once best known as Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu. He still is, of course, but over the last few years his friend­ly, intel­li­gent, and wicked­ly fun­ny pres­ence on social media has land­ed him a new pop­u­lar role as a social jus­tice advo­cate. Takei’s activist pas­sion is informed not only by his sta­tus as a gay man, but also by his child­hood expe­ri­ences. At the age of 5, Takei was round­ed up with his Amer­i­can-born par­ents and tak­en to a Japan­ese intern­ment camp in Arkansas, where he would live for the next three years. In a recent inter­view with Democ­ra­cy Now, Takei spoke frankly about this his­to­ry:

We’re Amer­i­cans…. We had noth­ing to do with the war. We sim­ply hap­pened to look like the peo­ple that bombed Pearl Har­bor. But with­out charges, with­out tri­al, with­out due process—the fun­da­men­tal pil­lar of our jus­tice system—we were sum­mar­i­ly round­ed up, all Japan­ese Amer­i­cans on the West Coast, where we were pri­mar­i­ly res­i­dent, and sent off to 10 barb wire intern­ment camps—prison camps, real­ly, with sen­try tow­ers, machine guns point­ed at us—in some of the most des­o­late places in this coun­try.

Takei and his fam­i­ly were among over 100,000 Japan­ese-Amer­i­cans— over half of whom were U.S. cit­i­zens—interned in such camps.


Into one of these camps, Man­za­nar, locat­ed in the foothills of the Sier­ra Nevadas, cel­e­brat­ed pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ansel Adams man­aged to gain entrance through his friend­ship with the war­den. Adams took over 200 pho­tographs of life inside the camp. In 1965, he donat­ed his col­lec­tion to the Library of Con­gress, writ­ing in a let­ter, “The pur­pose of my work was to show how these peo­ple, suf­fer­ing under a great injus­tice, and loss of prop­er­ty, busi­ness and pro­fes­sions, had over­come the sense of defeat and dis­pair [sic] by build­ing for them­selves a vital com­mu­ni­ty in an arid (but mag­nif­i­cent) envi­ron­ment.”

adams 2

Adams had anoth­er pur­pose as well—as schol­ar of the peri­od Frank H. Wu describes it—“to doc­u­ment some aspects of the intern­ment camp that the gov­ern­ment didn’t want to have shown.” These include “the barbed wire, and the guard tow­ers, and the armed sol­diers.” Pro­hib­it­ed from doc­u­ment­ing these con­trol mech­a­nisms direct­ly, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er “cap­tured them in the back­ground, in shad­ows,” says Wu: “In some of the pho­tos when you look you can see just faint­ly that he’s tak­ing a pho­to of some­thing, but in front of the pho­to you can see barbed wire, or on the ground you can see the shad­ow of barbed wire. Some of the pho­tos even show the blur­ry out­line of a soldier’s shad­ow.”


The pho­tographs doc­u­ment the dai­ly activ­i­ties of the internees—their work and leisure rou­tines, and their strug­gles to main­tain some sem­blance of nor­mal­cy while liv­ing in hasti­ly con­struct­ed bar­racks in the harsh­est of con­di­tions.

adams camp

Though the land­scape, and its cli­mate, could be des­o­late and unfor­giv­ing, it was also, as Adams couldn’t help but notice, “mag­nif­i­cent.” The col­lec­tion includes sev­er­al wide shots of stretch­es of moun­tain range and sky, often with pris­on­ers star­ing off long­ing­ly into the dis­tance. But the major­i­ty of the pho­tos are of the internees—men, women, and chil­dren, often in close-up por­traits that show them look­ing var­i­ous­ly hope­ful, hap­py, sad­dened, and resigned.


You can view the entire col­lec­tion at the Library of Con­gress’ online cat­a­log. Adams also pub­lished about 65 of the pho­tographs in a book titled Born Free and Equal: The Sto­ry of Loy­al Japan­ese Amer­i­cans in 1944. The col­lec­tion rep­re­sents an impor­tant part of Adams’ work dur­ing the peri­od. But more impor­tant­ly it rep­re­sents events in U.S. his­to­ry that should nev­er be for­got­ten or denied.


via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ansel Adams Reveals His Cre­ative Process in 1958 Doc­u­men­tary

Dis­cov­er Ansel Adams’ 226 Pho­tos of U.S. Nation­al Parks (and Anoth­er Side of the Leg­endary Pho­tog­ra­ph­er)

Dr. Seuss Draws Anti-Japan­ese Car­toons Dur­ing WWII, Then Atones with Hor­ton Hears a Who!

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Alan Drabke says:

    The japan­ese bombed Pearl Har­bor on a Sun­day. That’s about as treach­er­ous as you can get. We don’t owe them repa­ra­tions.

  • Irene Yeates says:

    In case you missed it, Mr. Drabke, these were Japan­ese AMERICANS; born in the USA.

    “…The pur­pose of my work was to show how these peo­ple, suf­fer­ing under a great injus­tice, and loss of prop­er­ty, busi­ness and pro­fes­sions, had over­come the sense of defeat and dis­pair [sic] by build­ing for them­selves a vital com­mu­ni­ty in an arid (but mag­nif­i­cent) envi­ron­ment…” — Ansel Adams

  • Curt Bouterse says:

    Drabke: that’s a Ger­man name, isn’t it?

  • louis says:

    Wow, A very inter­est­ing look at how Amer­i­ca looked at war, and not so long ago. The peo­ple inside our own bor­ders sus­pec­t’s ? If we could learn some­thing from this today, what would we learn ? In oth­er Coun­try’s the killing of Chris­tian’s show’s we are in a Reli­gious WAR, Peo­ple being killed for their belief’s in God.

  • Mike Holcomb says:

    These were most­ly hon­est peo­ple whom had their prop­er­ty stolen, thrown into a con­cen­tra­tion camp. were we any bet­ter than the ger­mans?

  • K.R.A says:

    @Mike Hol­comb, well we weren’t sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly exe­cut­ing them, which I feel is a pret­ty big dis­tinc­tion. That said, it should be regard­ed as a mark of shame on Amer­i­can his­to­ry for our treat­ment of our fel­low Amer­i­cans. What ever ones race gen­der or creed we as Amer­i­cans are unit­ed by the ideals of free­dom and democ­ra­cy. Impris­on­ing our coun­try­men because they looked like our ene­my is atro­cious and the shame it brings us is well deserved.

    All of that being said, I think we as a coun­try HAVE learned from this mis­take with the best exam­ple of this being the imme­di­ate after­math of 9/11. How many Mus­lim Amer­i­cans of Ara­bic descent did we sumer­il­ly round up and lock away in intern­ment camps? Before the flames start get­ting thrown I am not ignor­ing the count­less ques­tion­able actions of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment with regards to the wars that have since fol­lowed 9/11, that is for anoth­er dis­cus­sion thread, I just think it’s impor­tant to point out that we have for the most part learned from this expe­ri­ence

  • Felipe says:

    This reminds me of when George Car­lin told this sto­ry on one of his shows while speak­ing of “our” rights.

  • Nogee says:

    Please look up anoth­er lit­tle known fact asso­ci­at­ed with this sto­ry. The 442nd Infantry Reg­i­ment was made up most­ly of Amer­i­can sol­diers of Japan­ese ances­try. Most dec­o­rat­ed unit for size and length of ser­vice.

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