Why the U.S. Photographed Its Own World War II Concentration Camps (and Commissioned Photographs by Dorothea Lange)

Dur­ing World War II, the Unit­ed States put thou­sands and thou­sands of its own cit­i­zens into con­cen­tra­tion camps. The wartime intern­ment of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans is a well-known his­tor­i­cal event, and also an unusu­al­ly well-doc­u­ment­ed one — not just in the sense of hav­ing been doc­u­ment­ed copi­ous­ly, but also with excep­tion­al pow­er and artistry. Much of that owes to the astute pho­to­graph­ic observ­er of ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca Dorothea Lange, who had already won acclaim for her Great Depres­sion-sym­bol­iz­ing Migrant Moth­er.

Pub­lished in 1936, Migrant Moth­er was tak­en under the aus­pices of the U.S. Reset­tle­ment Admin­is­tra­tion and Farm Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion. In 1941, Lange aban­doned a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship to throw in with anoth­er gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tion, the War Relo­ca­tion Author­i­ty, and turn her lens on the interned. “After Japan’s bomb­ing of the U.S. navy base at Pearl Har­bor, a sur­prise attack that left over 2,000 Amer­i­cans dead, Japan­ese Amer­i­cans became tar­gets of vio­lence and increased sus­pi­cion,” says the nar­ra­tor of the Vox Dark­room video above. Fear­ing the emer­gence of a “fifth col­umn,” the gov­ern­ment arranged the relo­ca­tion of 120,000 Japan­ese Amer­i­cans who had been liv­ing on the west coast into remote camps.

“The Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tion want­ed to frame the removal as order­ly, humane, and above all, nec­es­sary.” Hence the cre­ation of the WRA, a depart­ment charged with han­dling the removal, “and more impor­tant­ly, doc­u­ment­ing it, through pro­pa­gan­da films, pam­phlets and news pho­tographs.” The project could hard­ly have made a more pres­ti­gious hire than Lange, who pro­ceed­ed to pho­to­graph “the rapid changes hap­pen­ing in Japan­ese Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing Japan­ese-owned farms and busi­ness­es shut­ting down.” Her work (see var­i­ous exam­ples here) cap­tured the final days, even hours, of an estab­lished mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional soci­ety about to be dis­man­tled by the mass evac­u­a­tion.

The Army dis­ap­proved of the nar­ra­tive cre­at­ed by Lange’s can­did pho­tos, many of which were seized and impound­ed. The offend­ing images depict­ed armed U.S. sol­diers over­see­ing the removal process, “tem­po­rary pris­ons used while the con­cen­tra­tion camps were built,” food lines at the assem­bly cen­ters, and Japan­ese Amer­i­cans in U.S. mil­i­tary uni­form. Releas­ing Lange from the pro­gram after just four months, the WRA kept most of her pho­tos out of the pub­lic eye. They stayed out of it until a series of exhi­bi­tions in the 1970s, which revealed the true nature of the con­cen­tra­tion camps. That term is most asso­ci­at­ed with the Holo­caust, to whose sheer destruc­tion of human­i­ty the Japan­ese Amer­i­can intern­ment can­not, of course, be com­pared. But as Lange’s pho­tographs show, just hav­ing the moral high ground over Nazi Ger­many is noth­ing to brag about.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dorothea Lange Dig­i­tal Archive: Explore 600+ Pho­tographs by the Influ­en­tial Pho­tog­ra­ph­er (Plus Neg­a­tives, Con­tact Sheets & More)

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

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

How Dorothea Lange Shot Migrant Moth­er, Per­haps the Most Icon­ic Pho­to in Amer­i­can His­to­ry

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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