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Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment Paperback – February 17, 2008
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
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In these days of fear of the terrorist 'other', reading this measured, intelligent introduction to a time that is all-too possible to imagine recurring, and looking at Lange's photos... may be one of the most useful things one can do this Christmas. "
[The] images show Americans of Japanese extraction being relocated to 'assembly centers', labeled and processed like cattle and closeted away in dismal shacks for the duration of the war... No wonder her pictures were never used and disappeared for half a century. "
Through her discerning and sensitive eye, Lange's observations of the situation were too real and too critical for the government, and were consequently confiscated. "
[T]he bulk of the book is given over to Lange's photographs. Several of these are as powerful as her most stirring work, and the final image of a grandfather in the desolate Manzanar Center looking down in anguish at the grandson between his knees is worth the price of the book alone. "
About the Author
Linda Gordon, winner of two Bancroft Prizes and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, is the author of The Second Coming of the KKK, Dorothea Lange and Impounded, and the coauthor of Feminism Unfinished. She is the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University and lives in New York and Madison, Wisconsin.
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What the pictures cannot relate, given by the essays is the nature of the social and legal contexts and the largely defective processes of both reason and juris prudence which allowed the implementation of this travesty to progress.
As Gary Y. Okihoro writes in his contribution to this book, "As the nation prepared to defend democracy against the threat of fascism, its leaders authorized and conducted undemocratic actions that bypassed and ignored constitutional guarantees and freedoms." It is impossible to justify that irony. The program was conducted pursuant to Executive Order 9066, which Franklin D. Roosevelt issued in February 1942, in the wake of Pearl Harbor. But the seeds of the program long pre-dated Pearl Harbor. One of the sorry facts I learned from Okihoro's essay was that as early as August 1936 FDR was advocating that the military compile a secret list of those Japanese "who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble." FDR deserves praise for his overall sympathy for the common man and woman, but as regards the Japanese he had a racist blind spot.
Based in large part on her famous photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, Dorothea Lange was engaged by the government to document the "relocation" (the preferred euphemism) of the Japanese-Americans. The War Relocation Authority probably hoped that her photographs would generate support for its program, just as her Depression photographs had done for the FSA. But that would have required photographs of happy, smiling, contented incarcerates - subjects hard to find. Plus, Lange refused to be co-opted into promoting a lie. Instead, as a body of work her photographs "challenged the political culture that categorized people of Japanese ancestry as disloyal, perfidious, and potentially traitorous, that stripped them of their citizenship and made them un-American." So the WRA declined to publish the vast majority of Lange's photographs, instead quietly depositing them in the National Archive.
IMPOUNDED tells the above tale in three sections. First there is an essay by Linda Gordon about Dorothea Lange that focuses primarily on her work for the WRA. Second is an essay by Gary Y. Okihoro that discusses the history of American discrimination against Japanese immigrants and especially the various manifestations of that racism during World War II. Third is a collection of slightly over 100 of the photographs that Dorothea Lange took in 1942 of Japanese-Americans (a) during the days before the evacuation, (b) being rounded up, (c) living in rather squalid conditions at various assembly centers, and (d) as imprisoned at Manzanar, the largest of the ten camps.
Now why do I say the book is not wholly satisfactory? First, as other reviewers have noted, the photographs, as reproduced here, tend to be disappointingly small in size and of middling quality. Some of the more poignant and striking of the photographs can also be found, larger and better reproduced, in "Executive Order 9066" by Maisie and Richard Conrat (which, incidentally, I recommend over this book for those who are primarily looking for photographs of the internment program). Second, both of the authors - Okihoro more so than Gordon - are too tendentious and heavy-handed for my taste. It's a rather small point, and a condemnatory attitude is understandable, but the injustice of the internment program is manifest from any sober, objective recounting of the facts and does not need to be constantly underscored with judgmental cynicism and pathos. I would have preferred that the book left the propaganda to Lange and her more nuanced photographs.
But for Dorothea Lange's remarkable photographs of this egregious episode in our racist past (German and Italian Americans were treated with much more deference), we would have a far less meaningful record of the wrongs visited on Americans of Japanese ancestry. The story of how the photographs came to be taken is told in the first of two long chapters of "Impounded." The second long chapter is an account of the "profound effects in the Japanese American community" of its members long internment in what were barely more than concentration camps.
First published five years ago, some 65 years after the events portrayed, Lange's photographs reveal her sympathy for her subjects. One will search the photographs in vain for any evidence that these Americans either singularly or as a group posed any threat to our security. Not one of pictures could, by any stretch of FDR's war driven imagination, be used to show that the internment program was justified. No wonder, then, that the government suppressed their publication, impressing the word "impounded" on the prints.
"Impounded" tells two stories, both important to our understanding of the period. The first, the one told in the photographs, is that of the nature of, and the effects of, the unjustified deprivation of the civil rights on an entire subset of the American population. The second story, unspoken except by implication, is of the government's acknowledgment of the wrongs committed by its need to impound these photographs. Linda Gordon and Gary Okihhiro, the editors of "Impounded", demonstrate just how fragile our liberties are and how much is required of us all to prevent their erosion by our government. It can happen here.
End note. An earlier review by Rollin Drew sharply criticizes the publisher for the inferior quality of the book's reproductions of Lange's extraordinary photographs. He may well be right as a technical matter. But on the level at which this book spoke to me, the quality of the prints amply reveals Lange's remarkable courage in challenging the underlying need for the relocation program and by showing the scarring hardships it imposed on our fellow citizens. See if you don't agree.