Photographs from the Internment Camps

This year’s convocation speaker, Julie Otsuka, spoke about the photographs she had seen from the internment camps where Japanese Americans were held during World War II.  She highlighted the difference between the photographs taken by Ansel Adams, which she felt covered up some of the harsher realities of life in camp, and those taken by Dorothea Lange. Because these photos have been digitized and made available from the National Archives and the Library of Congress, let’s take a look.

Here is one of Lange’s photos, of elementary school girls at Manzanar:

Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. An elementary school with voluntary attendance has been established with volunteer evacuee teachers, most of whom are college graduates. No school equipment is as yet obtainable and available tables and benches are used. However, classes are often held in the shade of the barrack building

“Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. An elementary school with voluntary attendance has been established with volunteer evacuee teachers, most of whom are college graduates. No school equipment is as yet obtainable and available tables and benches are used. However, classes are often held in the shade of the barrack building.” Photograph by Dorothea Lange, available at the National Archives.

And here is one by Ansel Adams, also of a young girl in Manzanar:

"Girl and volley ball, Manzanar Relocation Center, California" Photograph by Ansel Adams, available from the Library of Congress.

“Girl and volley ball, Manzanar Relocation Center, California” Photograph by Ansel Adams, available from the Library of Congress.

What do you see when you compare these two photos?  What can you tell about the perspective of the photographer?

Now here’s another thought: the photos by Ansel Adams have been widely available for a long time, but the images by Dorothea Lange have only recently been made available (1).  If you had only seen the above photo by Adams, what might you conclude about life in the camp for school-aged girls?  What additional perspective does Lange’s photo give us?

Otsuka book and Wheelock convocation programThis year, I was excited to read Otsuka’s novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, and to talk about it with incoming first years at Wheelock.  We had a great discussion during orientation, and towards the end, these brand-new college students were asking really insightful questions.  “Why weren’t we taught about this in American history class?”  “My teacher mentioned the camps, but why did we never talk about what it was like for the people who were in them?”

These questions are complex, and those students who pursue degrees and careers in education and social justice fields might spend their professional lives attempting to answer them.  Since I’m a librarian, my perspective on the topic is all about information– what information we see, what we don’t, and how we find more.  Primary sources, like photographs and oral histories, provide important perspectives on historical issues.  And the primary sources that we have available to us can affect the way that we view history.

If you were intrigued by the novel, the Theatre Espresso performance, or Julie Otsuka’s speech, here are several places to find primary sources on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II:

Resources from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA):

Notes

(1) Dinitia Smith, “Photographs of an Episode That Lives in Infamy,” New York Times, November 6, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/06/arts/design/06lang.html?_r=1&

This post is the fourth in a series that will explore the topics found in this year’s Wheelock summer reading selection, When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka.

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