By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, clearing the way for the mass removal of Japanese Americans from their homes just two months after Pearl Harbor, anti-Asian sentiment had already been woven thoroughly into the national fabric. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the country’s first racially restrictive immigration law; it was followed in 1924 by the Immigration Act, which banned immigrants from all Asian countries. In between these two appalling milestones came the 1913 Alien Land Law, which targeted Asian immigrants by forbidding those foreign nationals who were ineligible for citizenship from owning land in California, where white farmers sought to expel Japanese Americans for “taking” agricultural jobs.
The wartime media understood how the power of written and visual language could be used to depict Japanese Americans as the enemy. One particularly egregious guide, published by Life magazine a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, used portraits of “Chinese public servant” Ong Wen-hao and “Japanese warrior” Tojo Hideki to educate readers on how to distinguish “enemy alien Japs” from “friendly Chinese.” Scribbled annotations contrasted Ong’s “longer, narrower face” and “parchment yellow complexion” with Tojo’s “massive cheek and jawbone” and “earthy” tone. Ong’s and Tojo’s faces gaze out from beneath the heavy web of marks, drawn by an anonymous hand.
Later in 1942, Roosevelt tasked the War Relocation Authority with overseeing the transfer of Japanese Americans to the nation’s 10 incarceration camps. Government officials were instructed to seize family photo albums from detainees’ homes, and prisoners themselves were forbidden from bringing cameras or other recording devices into the camps. A WRA memo stated that the agency’s goals were to “reestablish the evacuated people as a productive segment of the American population” and to “facilitate…reassimilation.” In order to document its presumed success in meeting these objectives, the WRA hired its own photographers to fill in the gaps in the visual record that it had created with images taken under exacting restrictions: No barbed wire or guard towers were to be pictured, and all negatives would be subject to review by the agency’s senior photographers. Stipulations like these sought to ensure that images of Japanese-American incarceration projected the WRA’s efforts as orderly and, above all, humane.
At the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City, the exhibit “Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II” features more than 100 photographs documenting the imprisonment of more than 110,000 citizens and legal residents from 1942 to ’45. (The Japanese American Citizens League distinguishes between the word “incarceration” and its euphemism “internment”: “Incarceration….reflects the prison-like conditions faced by Japanese Americans as well as the view that they were treated as if guilty of sabotage, espionage, and/or suspect loyalty.”) The exhibit immediately calls attention to history with its title, which comes from a phrase often attributed to the anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller. In one of his postwar lectures, he said, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Yet the common ground between Niemöller’s statement and the curators’ mission ends where visions of redress begin. Whereas Niemöller, who expressed anti-Semitic views earlier in his career, summons the privileged to speak on behalf of the oppressed, the exhibit encourages all viewers to self-educate and reckon with their own country’s past. Pairing images by photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams with printed materials ranging from newspaper clippings to detainee records, the exhibit illustrates how the visual legacy of this incarceration is itself a product of historical forces, which continue to influence how Japanese and Asian Americans are perceived today.
Lange, best known for her documentary photography for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, was initially hired to photograph the relocation efforts in California, though it soon became clear that her sympathies were with the detainees rather than the WRA. In 1942, Lange traveled along the West Coast, photographing farmers, store owners, and families in the months leading up to their eviction.
Among the most striking of Lange’s photos on display at the ICP is a portrait of Dave Tatsuno and his father, Shojiro, posed in front of their family’s San Francisco department store on the day before its closure. Smartly dressed, the Tatsunos stand straight-backed next to one another, arms resting by their sides. Only the younger Tatsuno directly faces Lange’s camera, his jutted chin projecting a sense of determination. A handwritten sign in the storefront window behind him announces that the Tatsunos only have “1 DAY to GO.”
Lange’s portrait makes palpable, to devastating effect, the tension between what lay ahead for its subjects and the WRA’s nearly all-white cohort of photographers, hired to sanitize the agency’s efforts. Elena Tajima Creef highlights the “discomfort sometimes evinced” by Lange’s subjects in her 2004 book Imaging Japanese America. Lange’s portrait raises questions about the limits of the photographic documentary genre—of what meaning is communicated and to whom. In Creef’s words, Lange “literally records the violence of the camera as she records the violence of dislocation.” That is, the act of a white outsider intervening to take pictures of such violence is in itself a further exertion of power, one that neither empathy nor a sensitive eye could efface.
One danger of naming any photograph as “documentary” is that the apparatuses of power within which the image is produced—between photographer and subject, Anglo and Asian American—are not necessarily made transparent, and are sometimes even obscured, by the photographic eye. Adams, a landscape photographer, was invited by the director of the Manzanar camp in Central California, a close friend of his, to photograph the camp’s detainees. Like Lange, Adams considered himself sympathetic to the Japanese-American cause. And yet, upon accepting his assignment, he tasked himself with documenting what he perceived as detainees’ loyalty to the United States—a project, Creef notes, that would rely on “whitewashing the signs of racial oppression from the context of the camps.”
The camp conditions that Adams would walk into were dismal. Detainees were crammed into barracks, which were unequipped to shield inhabitants from the dust storms and extreme temperatures in the remote desert. The barracks lacked running water, and detainees were forced to use unpartitioned communal bathroom facilities. The WRA had also failed to establish access to clean drinking water; as E. coli and dysentery broke out in camps across the country, Congress debated whether to implement a mandatory sterilization program for Japanese Americans, or to strip them of their citizenship at the war’s end and deport them to Japan.
In one photograph by Adams, Aya and Henry Tsurutani sit with their son, surrounded by cookware, shelving equipment, and other knickknacks in what looks like it could be a typical midcentury American kitchen. Yet the caption notes that the kitchen was housed inside the camp’s barracks with, as Aya recalled, “cracked wood sealed with tarpaper” and “dust” that “swept into the rooms.” Another photograph depicts women and children gathered on the steps of a small chapel as a white pastor smiles down at them, accented by a tall, stark cross—a picture of paternalistic Anglo-Christian piety to contrast with Shinto, the state religion of Japan, which was banned in the camps, along with the use of the Japanese language at religious ceremonies.
On the same gallery wall at the ICP, six of Adams’s portrait subjects, of varying ages, are depicted donning military or nurses’ uniforms. The collared shirts evoke military men, sweaters and lipstick the dutiful wives at home; some of his subjects smile, as one might do for a formal portrait. Adams’s high-contrast, close-range photographs emphasize the people themselves rather than their conditions and render any visible signs of their incarceration invisible.
On the whole, Adams’s oeuvre suggests that he failed to interrogate what, if anything, was inherently “American” about the visual cues he deployed. Adams photographed his subjects with a visual grammar that drew from popular midcentury depictions of well-to-do (i.e., white) America: nuclear families at home in their kitchens, attending church, or donning the wartime uniform—wholesome, pious, patriotic. The beginnings of William Petersen’s “model minority” myth are alive in Adams’s depictions; indeed, Adams later wrote of how “impressed” he was “with the solidity of [Japanese Americans’] character” and of his inability to “recall one sullen face in Manzanar.”
Adams pursued what he believed to be a progressive mission. Yet his portraits operate within the same racist logic responsible for Japanese-American incarceration in the first place. By focusing on his subjects’ faces and bodies, Adams invites readers to read Japanese Americans, and to attribute interpretations they draw from Adams’s work to the Japanese-American body itself. Adams’s head-on and high-contrast style also homogenizes his Japanese-American subjects, portraying them as, first and foremost, a racialized collective. But the notion of race as an intrinsic and predictive category is a construct, and Japanese Americans were least of all unified in their responses to incarceration.
“Then They Came for Me” places the often underrepresented history of outward protest against Japanese-American incarceration on prominent display. A display case at the back of the ICP’s main hall features an original copy of the 1943 “loyalty questionnaire” issued by the WRA, which asked detainees if they would serve in combat and swear unqualified allegiance to the United States by disavowing Japan. Hanging above the questionnaire is a photograph of the high-security Tule Lake Segregation Center, ruled under martial law, where thousands of “no-no boys” were sent after rejecting both propositions.
Despite the existence of accounts by detainees, the work of the WRA’s photographers continues to dominate the visual record of Japanese-American incarceration. The exhibit’s curators have sought to give voice to those who were deliberately silenced by featuring a number of photographs by Toyo Miyatake, a professional photographer who sneaked his camera into Manzanar, as well as recorded video interviews with former detainees by the Seattle-based nonprofit Densho, an archival and educational organization founded by Japanese Americans that has been working to create an archive of these “visual histories.” The exhibit also features several drawings of life in the camps by Miné Okubo, whose illustrations and accompanying writings became Citizen 13660, a keystone autobiographical work of Asian-American literature.
One of Okubo’s ink illustrations depicts a crowded room of people perched on beds, reading, conversing, or simply sitting alone—an intimate scene not visible in any of Lange’s or Adams’s photographs on display. Okubo’s drawings document the conditions to which Japanese Americans were collectively subjected without erasing the variety of individual responses to incarceration. Moreover, the medium of illustration, and perhaps her status as a fellow detainee, gives Okubo’s work a closeness that Lange’s and Adams’s photographs couldn’t have. Okubo’s accompanying writing also pierces the silence of the WRA-commissioned black-and-white photographs: “There was no privacy in our one-room home….We were tired of the shiftless existence and were restless…. Some were ready to risk anything to get away. Others feared to leave the protection of the camp.”
Okubo’s illustrations and paired writings resist binary narratives of Japanese Americans as either loyal or traitorous, victims or heroes, Japanese or American. What is undoubtable in her depictions is the responsibility that the viewer bears in affirming or rejecting those popularly accepted narratives. Okubo’s illustrations, which she began drawing for friends who lived outside of the incarceration camps, often feature one or more figures whose gazes are directed at the viewer, breaking down the viewer’s position as a spectator removed by space and, today, by time.
As the legacy of incarceration continues to touch the present, and as the “stealing our jobs” and “model minority” myths persist, the question of how incarceration under Executive Order 9066 should be remembered is a necessarily political one. The ICP’s exhibit has opened a window on the present to voices from the past, once silenced. We should listen, closely, when they speak.