Sins of Our Fathers: Revisiting the Horrors of Japanese Internment Camps

A new show at the ICP Museum shines a light on an ugly chapter in American history, and the photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams who documented it


Even J. Edgar Hoover knew that rounding up Japanese Americans rested on a sham. “The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data,” the FBI director wrote in February 1942. That month, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, empowering the military to remove “any and all persons” from areas it designated. The whole West Coast became an exclusion zone. Some 109,000 Issei and Nissei—Japanese immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants—were collected from homes and farms, taken to “assembly centers,” then deported to eight camps in the interior West and two all the way in Arkansas.

The same government that grounded this demolition of lives and communities in racist war paranoia—“a Jap is a Jap,” said General John DeWitt, the policy’s main driver—hired photographers, among the best at their craft, to document the process. An important archive has resulted, even if it was never fully clear at the time, including to the photographers themselves, why the War Relocation Authority established a “photographic section.” Some believed it was for propaganda, to show how humane the policy was, though the images would quickly prove the opposite. Perhaps it was bureaucratic instinct, following the precedent of the Farm Security Agency, which sponsored the classic Depression portraiture of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans.

A major exhibition of these photographs—by Lange and several others hired by the WRA, and by Ansel Adams from a separate project—is on view at the ICP Museum, titled Then They Came for Me. The show is right on time for February 19, the Day of Remembrance, when the Japanese-American community marks the anniversary of E.O. 9066. And it assumes additional force in a climate where, once again, demagogues are stoking racist enmities, with roundups and deportations—this time of Muslims and immigrants—becoming the sinister new norm.

The show accompanies Un-American, a powerful book by photo historians Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, who trawled government archives to gather the images, then employed multiple sources, from the databases held by Japanese-American groups to the website, to identify as many of the subjects as possible by contacting survivors and their descendants. Several of the survivors also appear in short videos in the exhibition, their elderly charm jarring with the difficult memories. One, for instance, recalls being forced to sleep in horse stalls in the transit centers, and the infestation of flies after someone tried to hose down the space, producing a mud of manure.

Hired by the WRA soon after its creation in March 1942, Lange and San Francisco photojournalist Clem Albers made crucial images of the policy’s early phase. They visited Japanese-American families ahead of their transfer, documenting the last days of normal life, and photographed them loaded into trucks and trains with whatever belongings they could gather to prepare for what the WRA cheerily called “pioneer communities.” They captured baggage inspections and assembly-line medicals in the cramped transit centers. Lange then continued to Manzanar camp in the Sierra Nevadas; Albers went to Manzanar, Tule Lake in northeast California, and Poston in the Arizona desert, places where barracks and fences were coming up as the first convoys arrived.

The pre-roundup images give the show an extra layer of emotion. Lange and Albers—the latter scratching dates and locations directly on the negatives—show families in suburban homes that exude bourgeois aspiration, and others, more modest, at work or gathered for portraits on their farms. The pathos is in the imminence: These subjects knew already that they would soon be taken to an unknown place

One photograph by Lange is a profound harbinger of absence. Made in Sacramento in May 1942, it shows a residential corner with rambling houses and a military order notice posted on a pole; the sole human is a tiny toddler, her straight dark hair concealed by weeds along the sidewalk. By then the roundup was in full swing. Homes were torn down, left vacant, or taken over. Farms were typically plundered. In a few cases, neighboring farmers tended the land for those taken away. The WRA dutifully recorded the damage, sending photographer Francis Stewart to the Sacramento area to add this information to its archive.

Albers had a short contract. Lange’s was canceled after three months: she sympathized with the incarcerated, and officials accused her of interference. But their successors—Stewart, Tom Parker, Charles Mace—still maintained an empathy that shows in their photographs. So did Ansel Adams, who visited Manzanar at its director’s invitation. Though he could not resist photographing the buttes and scrub surrounding the camp, Adams made very human work on site. His image of three primly dressed fourth-grade girls outside a padlocked barracks building, small patches of snow on the ground, contrasts their playful expressions with the Spartan conditions of camp schooling. Another Adams image highlights letters to camp internee Lucy Yonemitsu from her brother Robert, serving on the Italian front with the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in a still-life composition beside gourds and a potted plant.

And there was one Japanese-American WRA photographer: Hiraku Carl Iwasaki, who worked the darkroom as a teenager in Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, and who found work with Stewart. Authorities granted leave to some internees if they swore loyalty and showed they could get work in the Midwest and East, outside the exclusion zone. Iwasaki went to photograph some of these beneficiaries: storekeepers in Chicago, poultry-farm workers in Massachusetts, hotel bellhops in Missouri.

All the camps but one closed in 1945. Photos convey the mixed weariness and relief as internees line up for their twenty-five dollars and ticket home. Ambiguity followed them, as some restored their lives while others found destroyed homes and hostile neighbors. Tule Lake, where the government assembled the “no-nos” who refused to swear loyalty, did not shut until March 1946. A few photographs by Robert Ross, a camp administrator, appear in the show; in one, men in bandanas line up in salute of pro-Japan inmates being shipped to a Department of Justice facility.

Much of this work disappeared into archives. (Adams published a book of Manzanar images, but it original copies were rare; rumor claims the military bought copies to destroy them.) The camps were razed, leaving little trace. Memory work fell to groups such as the Japanese American Citizens League. The Japanese American National Museum opened in Los Angeles in 1992; it is the main site that preserves this history. After years of activist pressure, Congress passed legislation in 1988 that apologized for the internment and allotted $20,000 to each survivor. Historical markers have appeared at camp sites.

Still, for many people today, Japanese-American incarceration remains at most a factoid—a dangerous elision in today’s increasingly repressive moment. Pointedly, the ICP has paired this exhibition, on the ground floor of its museum, with The Day the Music Died, a multimedia exploration by photographer Edmund Clark of the “war on terror”—Guantanamo, rendition, torture, the bureaucracy of repression—on the lower level. At the top of the stairs, the shows and their subjects mesh: the letter of apology by George H.W. Bush to Japanese-American survivors, in 1990, faces Barack Obama’s 2009 directive to close the Guantanamo prison within one year. For recent brutalities, too, it’s still much more convenient to forget.

“Then They Came for Me”
ICP Museum
250 Bowery
Through May 6