“PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY” Impounded: Dorothea Lange and Censored Images of Japanese InternmentEdited by Dorothea Lange and Gary Y. Okihiro Reviewed by Marilyn Richardson


            Dorothea Lange’s pictures from the 1930s helped to create documentary photography. “Migrant Mother,” her 1936 portrait of a 32-year-old stoop-laborer, which she shot on assignment for the federal Resettlement Administration, has become iconic, part of our collective memory of the Great Depression. The woman sits in a doorway with three of her seven children, staring into the distance, her expression an impossible combination of despair, dignity, and hallowed beauty. Over the decades and throughout the world, in countless exhibitions and publications, scores of people have seen this image and others by this major American artist. However, less than five years after she took “Migrant Mother,” Lange shot another 1,000 photographs, also on commission from the US government, that are far less familiar. In fact, they were considered so revealing of this country’s bias, brutality, and shame that they were immediately censored and confiscated by the same government agencies that had commissioned them. They were of Japanese internment camps in California during World War II.

            Lange grew up far from both the migrant farmworker camps and the Japanese communities she would eventually record. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895, she lived on New York’s Lower East Side—“the only Gentile,” she wrote, “among 3,000 Jews” in her neighborhood school. She was drawn to the city’s cultural opportunities, attending concerts, plays, and museums. By the time she finished high school, she had determined that she would be a professional photographer. She apprenticed herself to studio photographers and took a course with Clarence White, who was both a highly regarded teacher and an outspoken advocate for women as professional photographers.

            In 1918, Lange settled in San Francisco, which she considered home for the rest of her life. There she found professional mentors in Imogen Cunningham, whose interest in pattern and texture led to a body of abstract work based upon forms from nature and from isolated elements of the human body, and Consuelo Kanaga, a white woman who became well-known for her stark portraits of African Americans. Both women produced work of such intense originality that their names became synonymous with their distinctive styles, as would Lange’s in the wake of her influential Depression era photographs.

            Lange enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of a community of self-consciously bohemian Bay Area artists and at the same time was able to make a comfortable living as a high-society portrait photographer. Then, the Depression changed everything. Lange left her studio and took her cameras into the streets, photographing breadlines, the unemployed sleeping on park benches, and union strikes and rallies. She welcomed a government job documenting poverty in the Dust Bowl and other rural areas. During the summer of 1936, she logged 17,000 miles in her old Ford station wagon, including trips into the deep South, where her encounters with the strictures of racism led her to take hundreds of photographs of black sharecroppers and other disenfranchised African Americans—pictures that New Deal administrators chose to ignore.

Two vivid introductory essays to this book, by historians Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro, provide background information about Lange’s vision and ideas. In “Dorothea Lange Photographs the Japanese American Internment,” Gordon, who is at work on a Lange biography, considers Lange’s deepening understanding of forms of racism in the South and on the West Coast.  She establishes this consciousness as a factor in Lange’s decision to take the job photographing the Japanese relocation—leaving behind the first Guggenheim fellowship ever awarded to a female photographer. “Did she know in advance that she would be a subversive employee?” Gordon wonders. The answer is probably not—Lange couldn’t have anticipated the scenes she would witness nor the fight she would wage to record them.

            Gordon’s essay is rich in biographical, political, and technical detail, told through stories of individuals and events, art and friendships, work and family.  Midway through, she offers a crucial insight into the structure of Lange’s photographic project—about time and distance and the split-second movement of the eye from one scene to the next, through a lens or across a page. Gordon writes about making choices, juxtaposition, and the impossibility of ever telling “the whole truth.” She says,

In this book we have tried to create a photographic chronicle that would tell the story of the internment from the point of view of its victims, in a narrative stretching from the evacuation order to Manzanar [internment camp]. But Lange could not photograph it that way, because the operation was proceeding at different rates in different parts of the West.


            Okihiro’s essay, “An American Story,” actually begins in Japan. The events that led to the internment were set in motion, he says, “in the mid-nineteenth century, when the United States dispatched an armed flotilla to Japan ‘to drive by force,’ in the words of . . . Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the overmatched Japanese into ‘opening’ their doors to US trade and influence.” “Gentlemen’s agreements” between the US and Japan controlled the flow of Japanese male laborers to Hawai’i and the mainland—although eventually “picture brides,” who “worked in the household and field and moved seamlessly from unpaid to paid labor,” were also factored into the immigration quotas.

            Although by 1941, second- and third-generation, native-born Americans of Japanese ancestry were US citizens, Okihiro argues convincingly that Japanese in the US had always been seen as outsiders harboring loyalties to imperial Japan. As one West Coast general explained, “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many, . . . possessed of American citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.” The Los Angeles Times editorialized that, “A viper is a viper nonetheless wherever the egg is hatched—so a Japanese-American, born to Japanese parents, grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.”

            Thus, the government already had prepared files of index cards listing Japanese-Americans and other perceived enemies when, on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i. Martial law was immediately declared there and on the West Coast of the mainland. Squads of FBI agents, military police, and local law enforcement officers began rounding up everyone in their files. Within the first two days, they took 865 Germans, 147 Italians, and 1,291 Japanese into custody. Most of the detained Germans and Italians were released under the condition that they not travel more than five miles from their homes. Some were held longer on a case-by-case basis. The Japanese and Japanese-Americans, however, were detained for “processing.”

            The name “Manzanar” has become shorthand for the internment of Japanese civilians during World War II; it’s become an indictment, which eventually led to an apology in 1988 and token compensation for the inmates and their survivors. Manzanar seems to be an ugly chapter in American history, but a fairly straightforward one—until you study the map at the beginning of Okihiro’s essay. In addition to Manzanar, there were internment camps at Tule Lake, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Topaz, Utah; Granada, Colorado; and Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas. In these far-flung camps, 120,000 men, women and children were held “for the duration,” in the wartime phrase. Forcibly removed from their homes and placed in concentration camps, they were accused of no crime other than the “fact” of their race. That old Southern standby, the “one-drop rule,” was called into service for the occasion. Mixed-race citizens were detained. Mixed-race orphans who had been placed in white homes were rounded up and sent with other orphans to a children’s village at Manzanar.

            By the spring of 1942, a steady stream of evacuees had been herded onto buses and trains and taken to assembly centers in large cities and small towns. Racetracks were “repurposed” (as today’s bureaucrats might say) as housing. The former stables, or “units,” had two rooms: the front one, which had held fodder, was windowless, while the rear one, where the horse had lived, had a window. The heat and stench were overwhelming. The uncertainty and fear of the unknown future even worse. Men were brutally strip-searched at bayonet-point. Family names were replaced with numbers, and each member received an official identity tag with his or her family number. Rumors spread of impending separations of family units, even of executions.

The obverse of such horror is often grim humor. Says Okihiro, “In the horse stalls, residents held a fly-catching contest in which the winner proudly displayed a gallon jug filled with 2,462 dead flies.” At the Santa Anita racetrack, internees “vied for the ‘honor’ of living in barrack 28, units 24 and 25, the stall once occupied by the famed horse Seabiscuit.”

Almost unbelievably, once most of the evacuees were confined to the long-term camps, thousands of young men of military age were drafted and sent to fight in the European theater. Some resisted and were charged with the major crime of draft evasion. The trial judge addressed the defendants as “you Jap boys,” admonishing them that if they were “truly loyal American citizens… they should embrace the opportunity to  . . . offer themselves in the cause of our National defense.” He found them guilty and sentenced them to four years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.


            For the first six months of 1942, Lange followed and photographed evacuees seven days a week for as long as each day’s light allowed her film to capture their images. Gordon and Okihiro have organized the photographs into chapters they call “Before the Evacuation,” “The Roundup,” “At the Assembly Centers,” and “Manzanar”—imposing a narrative structure upon the fractured chronology of individual lives.

Lange walks us through the carefully orchestrated process of turning ordinary citizens into feared and hunted aliens. One recurrent motif is the act of waiting: people stand in lines that zigzag to the horizon or in huddled groups, suspended between the past and the future, waiting to be assigned, fed, or allowed medical care. Another motif is work. Evacuees were paid $8.00 per month for a 48-hour week. Men and boys dug ditches or cleared acres of sagebrush to expand the desert camps. Men and women made camouflage nets for the War Department. And for themselves they planted gardens between the blocks of barracks to provide fresh vegetables and even flowers. Although the distinctive experiences of women in the camps are not addressed in detail, there is a steady movement of women through these pages of photographs; they are holding babies, feeding children, teaching youngsters, running a “children’s village” where orphans were housed, knitting, gardening – maintaining family and community under conditions that crushed traditional gender roles and left men and women threatened and humiliated.

Lange’s captions run from terse single sentences—“Fire equipment is used to keep the dust down at this center”— to pointed commentary—“An elementary school with voluntary attendance has been established with volunteer evacuee teachers, most of whom are college graduates. No school equipment is as yet obtainable and available benches and tables are used.” Her pictures show youngsters engrossed in schoolwork kneeling at crude wooden benches on rough-hewn plank floors. Other captions register a bemused sarcasm, “Evacuees enjoying games under the shade of trees near the creek” describes four elderly men seated on the ground playing a board game. Lange has photographed them in a dappled, bucolic light; they could be gathered in their neighborhood park.

            She wrestles with terminology. She is working for a government at war, and vocabulary matters. Almost all the evacuees are American citizens, so Lange refuses to call them “Japanese.” Instead they are “persons of Japanese ancestry.” Thus, one caption reads, “Evacuee family of Japanese ancestry relax in front of their barracks room at the end of the day,” while another describes, “Heads of families of Japanese ancestry gathered about the table where their hand-baggage is being searched for contraband.” It is both a bureaucratic mouthful and a subversive refrain.

            An old man sits on the edge of an iron bedstead. He wears a suit jacket, and his hands rest on his knees. At the other end of the bed, a young woman bends over her knitting. A single, naked light bulb dangles from the ceiling of the horse’s stall to which they are assigned. Neither acknowledges the camera. Lange writes:

San Bruno, California. Old Mr. Konda in barrack apartment, after supper. He lives here with his two sons, his married daughter and her husband. They share two small rooms together. His daughter is seen behind him, knitting. He has been a truck farmer and raised his family, who are also farmers, in Centerville, Alameda County, where his children were born.


The very act of recording the palpable humanity of ordinary folk maintaining their lives under state oppression short-circuits attempts to demonize them. 

The project took a physical and psychological toll, as Lange worked to the point of exhaustion and illness. She felt both angry and “guilt-stricken working for the government while this appalling thing was happening.” Although she had been hired by the War Relocation Authority, a federal agency, she worked under the scrutiny of military police, who discouraged Lange from talking to her subjects and harassed her with ever-changing, ever-stricter conditions: “No pictures of the barbed wire or watchtowers or armed soldiers guarding the camps,” Gordon summarizes the rules. “Nothing hinting at resistance within the camps.”

            Lange stopped shooting only when she was abruptly denied access to the internment sites and forced to turn over all of her prints, negatives, and undeveloped film to a military authority—which marked some of the prints with the word “impounded.” Fortunately, more than 750 of the negatives were sent to the National Archives. This work, done for a government that on the one hand wanted an accurate record of the internment process, yet on the other could not allow an individual photographer to bear witness to the criminality of those events, is in the public domain. Gordon and Okihiro reproduce more than 100 images here, most of them for the first time.

            This unique and important book brings genuine news from the past. No wonder the censors impounded this material. It is an unauthorized dispatch from a battle front that reveals significant gaps in our national narrative. Lange’s recovered photographs demonstrate the ease with which defining events have been all but erased from the American self-image, leaving us vulnerable to today’s seemingly unprecedented assaults on our constitutional and human rights.


Marilyn Richardson is an independent curator who specializes in exhibitions on historical themes. She lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.

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