478 Dorothea Lange Photographs Poignantly Document the Internment of the Japanese During WWII

Lange 1

“This is what we did. How did it hap­pen? How could we?” –Dorothea Lange

The idea sounds coun­ter­in­tu­itive giv­en the vio­lence we read about dai­ly, but it is per­haps pos­si­ble that human soci­eties are slow­ly out­grow­ing xeno­pho­bia and war, as Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist and lin­guist Steven Pinker has argued exten­sive­ly. It’s also pos­si­ble that Pinker’s view is an “arti­cle of faith” rather than fact. In any case, we can at least be heart­ened by one thing: If we do become bet­ter at learn­ing from the past than repeat­ing it, the pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments will not have dis­ap­peared into a mem­o­ry hole. The very same tech­nolo­gies that spread fear, big­otry, and dis­in­for­ma­tion across the globe also enable us to unearth humanity’s long his­to­ry of bad deci­sion-mak­ing and pre­serve the evi­dence in wide­ly-acces­si­ble online archives.

Lange 5

One such archive, the Den­sho Dig­i­tal Repos­i­to­ry, con­tains “his­toric pho­tographs, doc­u­ments, news­pa­pers, let­ters and oth­er pri­ma­ry source mate­ri­als” from the his­to­ry of the Japan­ese in America—including, of course, a par­tic­u­lar­ly regret­table his­tor­i­cal episode, the intern­ment of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans dur­ing WWII, a grim polit­i­cal expe­di­ent that offers lessons today to those who choose to learn them. Promi­nent among the archives’ many doc­u­ments from the peri­od is the Dorothea Lange Col­lec­tion, almost 500 images tak­en by the famous pho­tog­ra­ph­er of “the many dif­fer­ent stages of mass removal and incar­cer­a­tion” of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans in Cal­i­for­nia. The pho­tographs (recent­ly high­light­ed on Kottke.org) fea­ture orig­i­nal cap­tions writ­ten by Lange that con­tex­tu­al­ize the sub­jects and some­times pro­vide their names and a few bio­graph­i­cal details.

Lange 3

The lives of Japan­ese internees were in fact doc­u­ment­ed by not one, but two famous Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­phers, Lange and Ansel Adams. How­ev­er, Adams—whose pho­to­graph­ic series we fea­tured in a pre­vi­ous post—gained access to an intern­ment camp in the foothills of the Sier­ra Nevadas on his own, through a friend­ship with the camp’s war­den. Lange, on the oth­er hand, snapped sev­er­al hun­dred pho­tographs while on offi­cial assign­ment with the War Relo­ca­tion Author­i­ty. In 1942, the gov­ern­ment hired her to doc­u­ment the removal and impris­on­ment of over 100,000 Japan­ese Amer­i­cans in camps across the state.

Lange 11

Lange’s pho­tographs, writes Densho’s blog, have helped shape “the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of Japan­ese Amer­i­can removal.” Despite the restric­tions placed on her by the authorities—Lange could not shoot images of barbed wire, bay­o­nets, or guard towers—“she man­aged to pro­duce a body of work that at once cap­tured the inhu­mane actions of the U.S. gov­ern­ment and the human­i­ty of the indi­vid­u­als being forced to leave their lives behind for the ‘crime’ of Japan­ese ances­try.”

Lange 13

Her pho­tographs are “seem­ing­ly unstaged and unlight­ed,” writes Dini­tia Smith in a New York Times review of Impound­ed, a book fea­tur­ing many of the close to 800 pho­tographs Lange took, most of which were only recent­ly dis­cov­ered at the Nation­al Archives, “where they had lain neglect­ed for a half-cen­tu­ry after hav­ing been impound­ed by the gov­ern­ment.” Best known for her pho­tos of Dust Bowl farm work­ers, Lange, writes schol­ar Megan Asa­ka at Den­sho, “was an odd choice, giv­en her left­ist pol­i­tics and strong sym­pa­thy for vic­tims of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.” She was “appalled by the forced exile” and “con­fid­ed to a Quak­er pro­test­er that she was guilt strick­en to be work­ing for a fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that could treat its cit­i­zens so unjust­ly.” She took on the assign­ment “to accu­rate­ly record what the Japan­ese Amer­i­cans were under­go­ing,” but apart from “a few pho­tos that reached the pub­lic,” most of her work didn’t see the light of day for decades.

Lange 8

“What the mil­i­tary want­ed from her,” explains his­to­ri­an Lin­da Gor­don in a PBS doc­u­men­tary on Lange’s assign­ment, “was a set of pho­tographs to illus­trate that they weren’t per­se­cut­ing or tor­tur­ing these peo­ple who they evac­u­at­ed.” Gor­don, who co-edit­ed Impound­ed, notes in the book that the pho­tos “tell us that con­di­tions in the camps were much worse than most peo­ple think.” It’s hard not to be remind­ed of anoth­er, more har­row­ing, forced removal hap­pen­ing a con­ti­nent away as we see Lange’s images of Japan­ese Amer­i­can fam­i­lies forced to aban­don their homes and stores, fill out reg­is­tra­tion paper­work, gath­er their belong­ings in suit­cas­es, and board trains and bus­es en masse with num­bered tags around their necks.

Lange 10

What await­ed the internees at the camps were mil­i­tary-style bar­racks, libraries, rudi­men­ta­ry schools, and “tar-paper shacks where they endured bru­tal heat and bit­ter cold, filth, dust and open sew­ers,” writes Smith. Some internees were housed in for­mer horse stalls and many endured cav­i­ty search­es and oth­er humil­i­at­ing indig­ni­ties, as well as dai­ly fear and anx­i­ety about their even­tu­al fates. Lange’s pho­tographs, how­ev­er, “pow­er­ful­ly con­test the gov­ern­ment pro­pa­gan­da and hate­ful rhetoric aimed at vil­i­fy­ing Japan­ese Amer­i­cans,” writes Den­sho: “Often shot from a low angle, Lange places her sub­jects on a visu­al pedestal. She restores some dig­ni­ty in a moment when, many admit, they felt they had none.”

Lange 4

Unlike Ansel Adams’ fas­ci­nat­ing pho­tos, which are restrict­ed to the con­fines of one camp, Lange’s doc­u­ment the internees entire jour­ney from free­dom to impris­on­ment, as well as the respons­es of many Japan­ese Amer­i­cans to their new sta­tus as inter­nal ene­mies of the state. One shop own­er, “a Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia grad­u­ate of Japan­ese descent,” Lange not­ed, placed the sign you see above on his closed store­front.


All of the pho­tographs in the Den­sho archive are now in the pub­lic domain and can be freely used for any pur­pose. Lange, I imag­ine, would hope they force us to reflect on the futile insan­i­ty of demo­niz­ing entire pop­u­la­tions and turn­ing on fel­low cit­i­zens in times of war, xeno­pho­bic fer­vor and polit­i­cal oppor­tunism.

Lange 9

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Yale Launch­es an Archive of 170,000 Pho­tographs Doc­u­ment­ing the Great Depres­sion

1,000+ Haunt­ing & Beau­ti­ful Pho­tos of Native Amer­i­can Peo­ples, Shot by the Ethno­g­ra­ph­er Edward S. Cur­tis (Cir­ca 1905)

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

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