Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers & Francis Stewart’s Censored Photographs of a WWII Japanese Internment Camp

Image by Ansel Adams

In places where atroc­i­ties or wide­spread human rights vio­la­tions occur, we some­times hear ordi­nary cit­i­zens lat­er claim they didn’t know what was going on. In the case of the intern­ment of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II, this would be almost impos­si­ble to believe. “120,000 peo­ple,” notes Newsweek, “lost their prop­er­ty and their free­dom,” round­ed up in full view of their neigh­bors. Every major pub­li­ca­tion of the time report­ed on Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 Exec­u­tive Order. Newsweek wrote “that peo­ple in coastal areas ‘were more anx­ious than ever to get rid of their aliens after rumors that sig­nal lights were seen before sub­ma­rine attacks’ ” off the coast of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. There were many such rumors, the kind that spread xeno­pho­bic fear and para­noia, and which peo­ple used to vocal­ly sup­port, or tac­it­ly approve of, send­ing their neigh­bors to intern­ment camps because of their ances­try.

Image by Fran­cis Stew­art

Oth­er reac­tions were less than sub­tle. The West Seat­tle Her­ald con­front­ed read­ers with the blunt head­line “GET ‘EM OUT!” Nonethe­less, Newsweek’s Rob Verg­er writes, “the pol­i­cy was by no means greet­ed with unan­i­mous sup­port,” and a vig­or­ous pub­lic debate played out, with oppo­nents point­ing to the bla­tant racism and vio­la­tions of civ­il rights. Two-thirds of the internees were Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. Yet all Japan­ese Amer­i­cans were repeat­ed­ly called “aliens,” lan­guage con­sis­tent with the vir­u­lent­ly anti-Japan­ese pro­pa­gan­da cam­paigns emerg­ing at the same time.

Once the camps were built and the internees impris­oned, how­ev­er, a mas­sive pro­pa­gan­da effort began, not only the sell the camps as a nec­es­sary nation­al secu­ri­ty mea­sure, but to por­tray them as idyl­lic vil­lages where the patri­ot­ic internees patient­ly wait­ed out the war by farm­ing, play­ing base­ball, mak­ing arts and crafts, run­ning gen­er­al stores, attend­ing school, wav­ing flags, and run­ning news­pa­pers.

Image by Clem Albers

Much of that infor­ma­tion was con­veyed to the pub­lic visu­al­ly by pho­tog­ra­phers hired by the War Relo­ca­tion Author­i­ty to doc­u­ment the camps. Among them were Clem Albers, Fran­cis Stew­art, and Dorothea Lange—well known for her pho­tographs of the Great Depres­sion. All three vis­it­ed the camp called Man­za­nar in the foothills of the Sier­ra moun­tains. Anoth­er famous pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Ansel Adams, gained access to Man­za­nar by virtue of his friend­ship with its direc­tor, Ralph Mer­ritt.

Image by Dorothea Lange

Their pho­tographs, for the most part, show busi­ly work­ing men and women, smil­ing school­child­ren, and lots of patri­ot­ic leisure activ­i­ties, like Stewart’s pho­to of sixth grade boys play­ing soft­ball, fur­ther up. The pho­tog­ra­phers were strict­ly pro­hib­it­ed from pho­tograph­ing guards, watch­tow­ers, search­lights, or barbed wire, and the heavy mil­i­tary pres­ence at the camp is near­ly always out of frame, with some very rare excep­tions, like Albers’ pho­to­graph above of mil­i­tary police.

Image by Ansel Adams

Adams worked under these pro­hi­bi­tions as well, but his pho­tos cap­tured camp life as hon­est­ly as he could. The stun­ning land­scapes some­times com­pete, even in the back­ground, with the real sub­ject of some of his images (as in the pho­to at the top). But he also con­veyed the harsh bar­ren­ness of the region. He tried to inti­mate the oppres­sive police appa­ra­tus by cap­tur­ing its shad­ow. “The pur­pose of my work,” he wrote to the Library of Con­gress in 1965 upon donat­ing his col­lec­tion, “was to show how these peo­ple, suf­fer­ing under a great injus­tice, and loss of prop­er­ty, busi­ness and pro­fes­sions, had over­come a sense of defeat and despair [sic].” His images often show internees “in hero­ic pos­es,” writes Dini­tia Smith, as above, in order to enno­ble their con­di­tions. Lange’s pho­tographs, on the oth­er hand, like that of a young girl below, “seem­ing­ly unstaged and unlight­ed… bear the hall­marks” of her “dis­tinc­tive­ly doc­u­men­tary style.” Her pic­tures “com­press intense human emo­tion into care­ful­ly com­posed frames.” Some of her pho­tos show smil­ing, relaxed sub­jects. Many oth­ers, like the pho­to­graph of a bar­racks inte­ri­or fur­ther down, show the faces of weary, uncer­tain, and despon­dent civil­ian pris­on­ers of war.

Image by Dorothea Lange

Per­haps because of her refusal to sen­ti­men­tal­ize the camps, or because of her left-wing pol­i­tics and oppo­si­tion to intern­ment (both known before she was hired), Lange’s work was cen­sored, not only through restrict­ed access, but through the impound­ment of over 800 pho­tographs she took at 21 loca­tions. Those pho­tos were recent­ly pub­lished in a book called Impound­ed: Dorothea Lange and the Cen­sored Images of Japan­ese Amer­i­can Intern­ment and hun­dreds of them are free to view online at the Den­sho Dig­i­tal Repository’s Dorothea Lange Col­lec­tion. The Nation­al Park Service’s col­lec­tion fea­tures 16 pic­tures from Lange’s vis­it to Man­za­nar. At the NPS site, you’ll also find col­lec­tions of pho­tographs from that camp by Adams, Albers, and Stew­art. Each, to one degree or anoth­er, faced a form of cen­sor­ship in what they could pho­to­graph or whether their work would be shown at all. What most ordi­nary peo­ple saw at the time did not tell the whole sto­ry. For all prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es, writes Ober­lin Library, “life at a Japan­ese intern­ment camp was com­pa­ra­ble to the life of a pris­on­er behind bars.”

Image by Dorothea Lange

h/t @Histouroborus

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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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