Found  /  Art History

Rarely Seen Photos of Japanese Internment

Dorothea Lange's haunting photos of Japanese-American internment during World War II.
Dorothea Lange/Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Japanese-Americans, taken in the early 1940s, appear to show ordinary activities. People wait patiently in lines. Children play. A woman makes artificial flowers. Storefront signs proudly proclaim, “I am an American.”

But these quiet images document something sinister: the racially motivated relocation and internment during World War II of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast, more than 60 percent of whom were American citizens.

Anchor Editions recently began selling prints of 20 of Ms. Lange’s Japanese internment photographs. Half of the proceeds are earmarked for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued to stop the government’s mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans and continues to protect immigrant rights.

Although Ms. Lange’s photographs were commissioned by the federal government as part of its documentary programs, they were suppressed for the duration of the war. Never actively distributed, her prints were sometimes defaced by military personnel, the word “impounded” scrawled across them. After the war ended, the photographs were discreetly deposited in the National Archives, where they remained, largely unseen and unpublished, for decades.

“These photographs exemplify Lange’s mastery of composition and of visual condensation of human feelings and relationships,” the historian Linda Gordon wrote in the 2006 anthology “Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment,” which brought many of the photographs to light. “They also unequivocally denounce an unjustified, unnecessary and racist policy. Ms. Lange’s critique is especially impressive given the political mood of the time,” an era when even liberal public figures, such as the celebrated writer and illustrator Dr. Seuss, gave in to fear about Japanese-Americans.

Ms. Lange’s photographs capture not only the oppression of a people but also their struggle to retain their dignity: neatly dressed families huddled together, awaiting transportation to detention camps; a slouching girl, her eyes cast downward, guarding her family’s meager possessions; a group of children raising an American flag, affirming their loyalty to a nation that viewed them as alien and dangerous; a relocation center in Manzanar, Calif., in stark contrast to the majestic mountains beyond it.