Dorothea Lange Photographs Japanese-American Internment Camps
“To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable … But I have only touched it, just touched it.”
– Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
More than just a “good war,” former NBC newsman and “The Greatest Generation” author Tom Brokaw deemed WWII “the greatest war the world has seen.” But what corporate media shills like Brokaw tend to omit is that the U.S. fought that war against racism with a segregated army. It fought the war to end atrocities by participating in the shooting of surrendering soldiers, the starvation of POWs, the deliberate bombing of civilians, wiping out hospitals, strafing lifeboats, and in the Pacific, boiling flesh of enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the leader of this anti-racist, anti-atrocity force, signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, interning over 100,000 Japanese-Americans without due process. Thus, in the name of taking on the architects of German prison camps he became the architect of American prison camps.
Through her work with farm families and migrant workers during the Great Depression, photographer Dorothea Lange was familiar with images of displacement. But, when she was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document life in Japanese neighborhoods, processing centers, and camp facilities, the racial and civil rights issues added a new dimension. “What was horrifying was to do this thing completely on the basis of what blood may be coursing through a person’s veins, nothing else. Nothing to do with your affiliations or friendships or associations. Just blood,” Lange said. As the Library of Congress wrote, “Lange quickly found herself at odds with her employer and her subjects’ persecutors, the United States Government.”
“Lange’s attempts to use her camera to expose the social impact of the mass incarcerations came into conflict with the authorities,” says journalist Richard Phillips. “She was regarded with suspicion by the military, and even called before the War Relocation Authority on two occasions for alleged misuse of her photographs. The Wartime Civil Control Agency impounded most of her internment photographs, refusing to release them until after the war.”
True to her belief that the camera could teach people “how to see with a camera,” Lange created images of human dignity and courage in the face of vast injustice. But it wouldn’t be until seven years after her death that her work would reach a wide audience. The Whitney Museum incorporated twenty-seven of Lange’s Japanese internment camp images into an exhibit called “Executive Order 9066.” New York Times critic A.D. Coleman subsequently called Lange’s photographs “documents of such a high order that they convey the feelings of the victims as well as the facts of the crimes.”
Excerpted from the book “50 Revolutions You’re Not Supposed To Know” by Mickey Z., courtesy of The Disinformation Company (www.disinfo.com).