Dorothea Lange’s Censored Photographs of FDR’s Japanese Concentration Camps
The military seized her photographs, quietly depositing them in the National Archives, where they remained mostly unseen and unpublished until 2006
Dorothea Lange—well known for her FSA photographs like Migrant Mother—was hired by the U.S. government to make a photographic record of the “evacuation” and “relocation” of Japanese-Americans in 1942. She was eager to take the commission, despite being opposed to the effort, as she believed “a true record of the evacuation would be valuable in the future.”
The military commanders that reviewed her work realized that Lange’s contrary point of view was evident through her photographs, and seized them for the duration of World War II, even writing “Impounded” across some of the prints. The photos were quietly deposited into the National Archives, where they remained largely unseen until 2006.
Below, I've selected some of Lange’s photos from the National Archives—including the captions she wrote—pairing them with quotes from people who were imprisoned in the camps, as quoted in the excellent book, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.
I’ve also made a limited number of prints of her photos available for sale at Anchor Editions, and I’m donating 50% of the proceeds to the ACLU—they were there during WWII handling the two principal Supreme Court cases, fighting against the government’s mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans—and they have pledged to continue to fight against further unconstitutional civil rights violations. Their fight seems especially important today given the current tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and talk of national registries and reactionary immigration policies.
Humor is the only thing that mellows life, shows life as the circus it is. After being uprooted, everything seemed ridiculous, insane, and stupid. There we were in an unfinished camp, with snow and cold. The evacuees helped sheetrock the walls for warmth and built the barbed wire fence to fence themselves in. We had to sing ‘God Bless America’ many times with a flag. Guards all around us with shot guns, you’re not going to walk out. I mean… what could you do? So many crazy things happened in the camp. So the joke and humor I saw in the camp was not in a joyful sense, but ridiculous and insane. It was dealing with people and situations.… I tried to make the best of it, just adapt and adjust.
— Mine Okubo, Tanforan Assembly Center
At Manzanar and at the Santa Anita Assembly Center near Los Angeles, army engineers supervised manufacture of camouflage nets. Huge weavings of hemp, designed to fit over tanks and other large pieces of war matériel, they were constructed from cords that hung from giant stands; the workers usually wore masks to protect themselves from the hemp dust. The army claimed that they were volunteers but they were in fact coerced by camp administrators, who were receiving requisitions for large numbers of nets from the army. (One of the first strikes at the camps occurred when 800 Santa Anita camouflage-net workers sat down and refused to continue, complaining of too little food. They won some concessions.) At Manzanar other internees worked in a large agricultural project to grow and improve a plant, guayule, that could become a substitute for rubber. With rudimentary and often homemade equipment, chemists and horticulturalists hybridized guayule shrubs to obtain a substance of tensile strength with low production costs. These undertakings were illegal under the Geneva Convention, which forbade using prisoners of war in forced labor, and as a result only American citizens were usually employed so that the army could claim that these were not POWs.
— Linda Gordon, Impounded
The government charged 63 members and seven leaders of The Fair Play Committee with draft evasion and conspiracy to violate the law. The trial judge, Blake Kennedy, addressing the defendants as “you Jap boys,” sentenced the members to three years imprisonment. The seven leaders were sentenced to four years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
- Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment
- John Armor and Peter Wright, Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams, Commentary by John Hersey
- Densho: Controlling the Historical Record: Photographs of the Japanese American Incarceration
- Jonah Engel Bromwich, New York Times: Trump Camp’s Talk of Registry and Japanese Internment Raises Muslims’ Fears
- Carl Takei, Los Angeles Times: The incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II does not provide a legal cover for a Muslim registry
- ACLU: A Dark Moment in History: Japanese Internment Camps
- WW2 Japanese Relocation Camp Internee Records
- National Archives: Central Photographic File of the War Relocation Authority