November 26, 2006
Written by C.N.
We should know by now that the U.S. government (present one included) is notorious for keeping certain documents secret from the public. But as the New York Times reports, more than sixty years after the fact, new photographs taken by Dorothy Lange of life in some of the prison camps that held some 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II portray life in much harsher terms than what many of us thought — or were led to believe:
The infamous episode has been widely chronicled in books and memoirs, as well as in famous photos by Ansel Adams. . . . 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. . . .
“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. 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. . . .
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. Upon arrival at the assembly centers, 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. Lange photographed hospital patients in outdoor beds beside latrines, exposed to the elements; children neatly dressed for school, kneeling on the hard floor as they wrote in exercise books, because there were no benches or chairs.
I thank the organizers of this project for working to make these forgotten photographs public. It is indeed a sad chapter of American society, but one that we need to be constantly reminded of, in order to fight against the same kinds of events happening again. Sadly, the fact is that despite our best efforts, these kinds of injustices continue to take place, targeting innocent Americans who are singled out as the enemy based solely on their ethnicity.
Does this mean that our efforts at education and awareness through history and photographs such as these are in vain? Not at all. If anything, the injustices would be many times worse if we could not bring evidence like this against them. Thank you Ms. Lange, and Professors Gordon and Okihiro for reminding us of that fact.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "New Internment Pictures Depict Harsher Life" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2006/11/new-internment-pictures-depict-harsher-life/> ().
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