Placing Memory

A new book juxtaposes photos of abandoned Japanese-American internment camps with period images.

The history of war is written by the victor, or so goes the saying. The history of World War II that’s been widely told and eagerly accepted in the United States is largely the story of American sacrifice and success over evil aggressors. But there are gaps: only recently have we begun to tell the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans for the duration of the war. For years we underplayed this episode in our national life, and it’s easy to understand why: it’s an unwelcome reminder that victors are not necessarily ethically superior. Today the forced relocation of 120,000 innocent U.S. citizens to camps in seven states of the American West has been condemned as immoral and unconstitutional. In 1988 the federal government paid restitution to survivors and issued an apology, while official reports acknowledged that the policy arose from racism and irrational fear.

Placing Memory: A Photographic Exploration of Japanese American Internment, by Todd Stewart [University of Oklahoma Press, 2009], consists of photographs of the camps as they appear today; these include panoramic views of the now deserted buildings and landscapes that convey both the serene beauty of the settings and a sense of pathos for what happened there sixty years earlier. Juxtaposed with these contemporary photographs are period images portraying scenes from the life of the camps. Amplifying the visual narrative are four short essays, one by Stewart describing the context for his project, the others by photography curator Natasha Egan, Asian American studies scholar Karen J. Leong, and former Manzanar internee John Tateishi. The essays overlap somewhat but serve to frame the historic context of the photos, as well as to emphasize that the internment was a dark moment in American life. It’s a troubling reminder in a world facing the growing threat of international terrorism. One cannot help but think about Guantanamo.

The period photographs, taken by government-employed photographers, impart a controlled message about the camps’ internees, or “evacuees,” to use the official euphemism. Inevitably poignant, these photos show determined efforts to remain “normal” — a father watching his young child play at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, in Wyoming; young girls sitting atop a Labor Day parade float in Tule Lake, California; a wrestling tournament in Gila River, Arizona. People are often shown smiling, enjoying or making the best of limited resources. Photographs of guards, fences, weapons, or anything that could be used as “Axis propaganda,” were forbidden, and the internees themselves were forbidden to own cameras. Some pictures made by well-known photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, acknowledge the humanity and individuality of the internees and more directly address their dignity in the face of confinement.

Stewart’s color photographs are quiet but persuasive. Interwoven with the old black-and-white images, they underscore the grim irony that’s hard not to feel when comparing the official records of the internment camps and the ruins that remain today. The newer photographs are intended as straightforward documentation, but they also awaken faded memories of a time and place that our collective conscience has been trying to ignore (with considerable success). The soft color and striking light of Stewart’s images contrast with the monochromatic artifacts of the earlier era. Placing Memory is a thought provoking and timely meditation on an historical chapter that we forget at our own risk.

Mark Klett, “Placing Memory,” Places Journal, September 2009. Accessed 06 Oct 2015. <>

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Past Discussions View
  • Donlyn Lyndon

    12.08.2009 at 09:36

    For more on the ways in which photographs were commissioned, framed, displayed and used to shape a distorted understanding of these places and their purposes, (including the role of the Museum of Modern Art) see
    Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration, by Jasmine Alinder, University of Illinois Press.

    Then wonder about what we see and don't see in the images that now pervade our lives.

  • Jerry Vandesic

    12.09.2009 at 09:38

    "... condemned as immoral and unconstitutional"

    While the the internment of Japanese Americans during WW2 was certainly immoral, it wasn't unconstitutional. The supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion order in Korematsu v. United States (1944). Over forty years later a reparations law was passed, granting compensation to interned idividuals, but that did not impact the supreme court decision. I personally think the Korematsu decision was wrong, but that's not what the supreme court said.

  • Polonia Odahara Novack

    01.10.2010 at 17:34

    Instantly recognized the building as the auditorium at Manzanar, the internment camp where my mother and family were imprisoned during WWII. This particular structure was where the sewing skills of my grandmother were put to use in the manufacture of camouflage netting. That is until the Geneva Convention was observed (ironically, POW labor was illegal.) The auditorium today no longer appears as in this photograph. The National Park Service has since "refurbished" it together with the entire site. The auditorium currently houses the NPS sanitized version of the story. I prefer to remember walking the site before the NPS "cleaned" things up, when you could hear the story in the wind and read it in the found ceramic shards, outlines of old gardens, broken concrete foundations, weathered nails and wood from the barracks and, the peeling paint on the auditorium. Experientially, this was when the site still provided a visceral sense of time.

  • Nicole Howe

    10.12.2010 at 11:19

    Jerry, I do believe it was only found to be constitutional due to the bending of rules if i do remember correctly, by making the racial prejudice a separate issue somehow... however they justified it was wrong.
    I like the feeing that the photos create, we know from history how terrible a place the camps were and the wrong immoral things that took place and these pictures show nothing of the dehumanizing side of the situation. The photos themselves are beautiful, the contemporary ones having a lonely remembrance and the old almost a sense of community. It shows how strong they were and how they got through the tough times. I think it is good to not show the wrongs that took place in this situation but to instead look back on it and show the power of those who made it through the injustice.