Art

Dark Photographs Divulge Racism and Xenophobia in WWII Japanese Internment Camps

Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties  is a monumental exhibition at the Alphawood Gallery that examines a dark episode in American history when the U.S. government incarcerated citizens and legal residents of Japanese ancestry.

This exhibition displays 100 enlarged photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and Toto Miyatake, among other photographers. Their work documents the eviction of Japanese Americans from their homes and their time spent in incarceration camps.

Following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which set up the War Relocation Authority (WRA), an agency that oversaw the removal and imprisonment of all people of Japanese ancestry (citizens and non-citizens alike) living on or near the West Coast. As a result, 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry (roughly two-thirds were U.S. born citizens) were forced from their homes to detention centers ― no charges were filed and no trials were ever held. Most Japanese Americans were held for three years or more and endured dehumanizing conditions such as poor housing and food, inadequate medical care, and substandard education.

Dorothea Lange, Turlock, California, May 2, 1942. National Archives.

Dorothea Lange along with Ansel Adams and a few other photographers were hired by the WRA to document the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans. The agency at the time had wanted to use their photos as propaganda ― depicting the removal and incarceration process as orderly and humane. But Lange left the program after a few months because she was distressed by what she was observing.  In many of her photos, she captured the chaotic scenes of Japanese Americans packed onto buses and trains, the expressions of fear and confusion on their faces, and the threadbare barracks where they had to live. Because she was seen as sympathetic to Japanese Americans, the military impounded her photographs for the duration of the war.

Ansel Adams was invited to document scenes at the Manzanar incarceration camp in California. He was restricted from photographing watch towers, barbed wire fences and armed guards. Even though Adams did not see himself as a social activist like Lange, he still felt compelled, before the war ended, to publish his Manzanar photographs in the book, Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans  and also present his photos at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Adams also spoke out about the dangers of letting wartime hysteria justify depriving U.S. citizens of their freedom. He and the museum were criticized for their sympathetic portrayal of Japanese Americans.

Ansel Adams, Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Library of Congress.

Also on display in the exhibition, are photographs by Toyo Miyatake. Before being incarcerated during World War II, Miyatake was a photographer who had a photo studio in Los Angeles. When he learned he would be interned at Manzanar, he asked a carpenter to build him a wooden box with a hole carved out at one end to accommodate a lens. He snuck this makeshift camera around camp taking photographs of the imprisoned residents’ daily lives. Some of his most notable photographs reveal details of the camps such as barbed wire fences and guard towers.

Besides the photographs, also on exhibit are diaries, art, and other archival materials. There are also a few videos that feature interviews with Japanese Americans who experienced the evacuation process and life in a detention center.

This exhibition is so compelling that you will want to plan ahead in order to spend a lot of time viewing these emotional and historical photographs that depict a dark period in U.S. history.

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Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties  will run from June 29 through November 19, 2017. Alphawood Gallery is located at 2401 N. Halsted. The gallery is open Wednesday and Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday-Sunday  11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

Categories: Art, Photography

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