Seventy five years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment and resettlement of over 100,000 Japanese -Americans to internment camps in remote locations in the western states. It was war time, and these people were suspected, based primarily on ethnicity, of collaborating with the enemy. The debate, process of resettlement, reaction, and apology by President Ronald Reagan are well documented. My aim here is to comment on photography.
Dorothea Lange and other photographers were commissioned by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to document the resettlement process. (You can find more details of the resettlement and her photography here and here. Anchor Editions still has some of these prints available (as of this date; many are sold out).
The photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information were employed by the US government to make photographs that could be used to explain to the American public (and to Congress) what its programs were trying to do. While not all well known, these were accomplished photographers who made some outstanding works. Some of them, such as Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’, were iconic views of the Great Depression.
The photograph above is the one I chose to purchase, not just for its overall quality but for its emotional content. I can almost feel her tiredness, and the background of family luggage tells its own story of relocation. I find this photograph at least as emotive as ‘Migrant Mother’. Here, Lange found a decisive moment, with this eyes-closed expression. In ‘Migrant Mother’, the lined face has its story of toil; young Kimiko projects through her expression, posture, clothing and surroundings, in a much more complex composition. For those photographic rule breakers viewing this, I note that this work is almost square, slightly taller than wide, with the subject centered. Still a great photograph.
While this blog is primarily intended as a commentary on photography, I cannot help noting a few facts, of the ordinary kind. Seventy five years ago a US President signed an executive order leading to the forced resettlement of over 100,000 people selected for their ethnicity, many of them US citizens and many of them eventual war heroes. Forty six years later President Ronald Reagan signed an Act of Congress authorizing payment of redress to those interned. In the following administration, President George H. W. Bush presided over the formal apology and distribution of funds to over 80,000 survivors. Year before last one of those survivors starred in a Broadway play whose subject was the order and internment. And all this happened because politicians listened to fear without reason.
If there had been more photographs published as this event unfolded, it might have had a different outcome.