Dorothea Lange's Visit to the Japanese Internment Camps

The photographer captured this unprecedented moment in WWII

By Google Arts & Culture

View of the Manzanar Relocation Center in California during a dust storm. (1942-07-03) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

In December 1941, following the surprise attack by Japan on Pearl Harbour, the USA entered the Second World War. Fears of 'internal enemies' were stoked. By early 1942, Executive Order 9066 authorised the 'evacuation' all Japanese-American citizens to internal prison camps.

Members of the Mochida family wait in Hayward, California, for their “evacuation” bus. (1942-05-08) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

Photographer Dorothea Lange had made her name in the 1930s, documenting the struggles of the Great Depression. Though she was opposed to internment, she took up the commission to provide a photographic record in the hope that it may be valuable to future generations.

"Evacuees” prepare to board buses that will take them to an “assembly center.” (1942-04-06) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

Lange recorded the entire process of internment, from the 'assembly centers' where families gathered with whatever possessions they could carry, to the austere and imposing prison camps, sited in desolate areas of the western United States, including Indian reservations.

Anxious residents wait outside a “civil control station” in San Francisco. (1942-04-25) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

Lange's photographs turned the internment from a matter of faceless government policy to a human tragedy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, military officials and government censors were unhappy with her photographs, and refused publication for the duration of the war.

“Evacuees” tend a vegetable garden at the Manzanar camp (1942-07-02) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

Lange captures the reality of life in these remote camps. Rationing had just been introduced, and most food at the camps was canned. Fresh fruit and vegetables had to be grown by the prisoners themselves out of the arid dirt.

A barracks room at the Manzanar camp. (1942-06-30) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

The people were housed in basic, wooden barracks. They slept on cots with thin mattresses, with sheets hung from the ceiling to offer a little privacy. While summers could be stifling, the desert nights were freezing, and stoves provided the only heating.

Women at the Manzanar Relocation Center making camouflage nets for the military. (1942-07-01) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

The camps formed miniature 'towns', with people from all walks of life living and working together. Some people, such as doctors, dentists, and teachers retained their jobs inside the camps. Others took on new work, such as weaving camouflage netting for the US military.

Many people in the camps took art classes organized by other “evacuees.” (1942-08-30) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

Many found it important to maintain a sense of normality in the camps. Art classes, choirs, musical bands, and sports were organised within the barbed wire fences. Over 4000 people were allowed out of the camps to attend university classes.

Children pledge allegiance to the flag at the Raphael Weill Public School in San Francisco. (1942-04-20) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

Yet, people of Japanese heritage remained suspect in the eyes of many Americans. Officially, anyone who was 1/16th Japanese was subject to internment.

A grandfather with his grandson at the Manzanar camp in California. (1942-07-02) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

There was resistance to the policy, and the conditions of the camps sparked some protests. In 1942, Fred Korematsu refused to be relocated, claiming protection under the 5th Amendement. His case made it to the Supreme Court, but was rejected. 

The Japanese American owner of this Oakland grocery placed this sign on his storefront. (1942-03-13) by Dorothea Lange and Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum of the National Archives and Records AdministrationOriginal Source: https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/210.html

The camps were closed in 1945, after an internee named Mitsuye Endo filed a writ of habeas corpus. Her case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the War Relocation Authority "has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure."

The last Japanese internment camp closed in March 1946. But it was 1976 before President Gerald Ford officially repealed Executive Order 9066. In 1988, Congress officially apologised and awarded 80,000 Japanese-Americans $20,000 each in reparations.

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