Seventy-five years ago, on February 19th, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066 forcing all West Coast people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes for confinement in inland detention camps. The families only had a few days to prepare and could only bring what they could carry. Successful businesses, farms ripe with crops, houses, cars, pets, Victory gardens, all had to be hastily sold, leased, given away, or abandoned. The majority of the “evacuees” were imprisoned from 1942 to 1946 without criminal charges or trial. By the end of the war, most had lost everything and had to start over from scratch.
This photograph by Dorothea Lange shows an art student at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, June 16, 1942. The evacuation ordeal is only two months old. Already University of California art professor Chiura Obata has set up art classes for his fellow detainees. This woman is probably only a few miles from home at this point but she’ll end up living in some horrid dusty “camp” in Utah or Arizona for years. She doesn’t know any of this yet. Perhaps art will help her survive. As Delphine Hirasuna wrote, “Everything was lost, except the courage to create.”*
As with all of Dorothea Lange’s photographs, this one is beautifully composed and executed. There’s a compositional tension between the vertical streaks of sunlight coming through the doors behind the artist, and the soft light washing over the horizontal surfaces of the tables. The placement of the larger tables focuses our eye on the small table holding the still life. Beneath the fruit bowl is a folded newspaper. It’s the Pacific Citizen, a weekly journal published by the Japanese American Citizens League. The headline is about the Relocation Centers. The paper has just moved from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to avoid being shut down. It will become the communication lifeline for the imprisoned Japanese American community. The whole scene conveys a quiet strength and dignity.
This image, and about 800 more of Dorothea’s Internment Camp photographs, were censored. Even though the War Relocation Authority hired Lange to document the “evacuation,” military officials quietly made sure the public never saw the photographs. For many years after the war, Dorothea didn’t know what had become of her work. Eventually, the prints showed up in the National Archives with “Impounded” written across them.
Those in power didn’t want the public to see photographs of well-dressed, middle-class American citizens, mostly women and children, living in horse stalls with open sewers flowing outside their doors. There could be no pictures of guard towers, barbed wire fences, armed soldiers, and especially resistance. No one was supposed to see the depression and despair on the people’s faces. They had been good neighbors, fellow students, church members, valued customers, and upstanding citizens but now, according to war-time propaganda, they looked like the enemy.
Dorothea didn’t see it that way. She had friends behind the barbed wire and quietly focused her camera on the injustice. Others would have to censor her vision.
* from The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 by Delphine Hirasuna.
For more of Dorothea’s photographs see: Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro (Editors).