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.