Dorothea Lange’s Images of the WWII Internment of People of Japanese Ancestry
Posted by Laurie Frost on August 10, 2009
Dorothea Lange, whose work we’ve looked at in several previous posts, is remembered for her work documenting the displaced and impoverished people of the Great Depression. A year after her assignment with the Farm Security Administration ended, she won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. But rather than concentrating on work of her own choice, in 1942 she accepted a position with the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to photograph the forced removal of all people of Japanese ancestry, citizens and non-citizens alike, of all ages and backgrounds to makeshift camps located in rural regions.
These photos were not to have the audience that Lange’s FSA work found; the WRA deposited them in the National Archives where they were ignored, with perhaps six being published before 2006, when Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro included roughly an eighth of the total in Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment (Norton, 2006).
Writing for Japan Focus, Gordon says that Lange, a resident of San Francisco with many Japanese-American associates, was opposed from the start to the the internments, but what she
saw was worse than she had expected. Every stage she observed—the peremptory directives to Japanese Americans to “report,” the registration, the evacuation, the temporary assembly centers and the long-term internment camps—deepened her outrage…. She worked nonstop 16-hour days for half a year…traveled … in cars not air-conditioned despite the scorching heat that prevailed toward the end of her undertaking. She did this as a disabled woman already beginning to feel the pain of bleeding ulcers and the muscular weakness we now know as post-polio syndrome. She patiently faced down continual harassment from army officers and guards who threw at her any regulation or security claim they could think of to prevent, slow, or censor her work.
I came across these images not by way of Impounded but by looking for other Lange photographs at the National Archives and the Library of Congress, so I don’t know what overlap there may be between my selections and the book’s. What you won’t see in the pictures are barbed wire fences, watch towers, or armed guards and signs of resistance. Lange was not allowed to photograph these kinds of things.
The National Archives is not as easy to search for images as the Library of Congress: you can’t preview a page of images for results, and different versions (e.g. print or negative) of the same image appear to be listed separately: the titles are the same but not the ID numbers. However, with far fewer exceptions than in the Library of Congress’s digital collection, if it is in the National Archives, it is in the public domain. Here is their statement:
The vast majority of the digital images in the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) are in the public domain. Therefore, no written permission is required to use them. We would appreciate your crediting the National Archives and Records Administration as the original source. For the few images that remain copyrighted, please read the instructions noted in the “Access Restrictions” field of each ARC record.
Please note that a few images on other areas of our web site have been obtained from other organizations and that these are always credited. Permission to use these photographs should be obtained directly from those organizations.
To find Lange’s work, start at When you get to Lange’s “People Description” page, you’ll find she appears in 1,361 descriptions. Click through on that, and you get a list of her work. If you see a CD disc next to the entry, there’s a digital file (and I think this is true in 1,360 of Lange’s entries). Click on the title. Now you are at a tabbed page. The “Digital Copies” tab gets you to the picture. The full caption is under “Scope and Content.”
LC means that the image is from the Library of Congress; ARC, the National Archives. Captions are from either the Library of Congress or National Archives records.
Lange began by photographing families in their pre-removal, normal lives, and then their preparations, their transport, and their camp lives.
Florin, Sacramento County, California. A soldier and his mother in a strawberry field. The soldier, age 23, volunteered July 10, 1941, and is stationed at Camp Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was furloughed to help his mother and family prepare for their evacuation. He is the youngest of six years children, two of them volunteers in United States Army. The mother, age 53, came from Japan 37 years ago. Her husband died 21 years ago, leaving her to raise six children. She worked in a strawberry basket factory until last year when her her children leased three acres of strawberries “so she wouldn’t have to work for somebody else”. The family is Buddhist. This is her youngest son. Her second son is in the army stationed at Fort Bliss. 453 families are to be evacuated from this area. (ARC 536474).
Doesn’t it seem odd that young Japanese-American males could serve in the military but their elderly mothers were sent to resettlement camps?
Japanese-American boarding up store front before evacuation, San Francisco (LC-USZ62-35483).Japanese evacuee, San Francisco (LC-USZ62-24815)
Oakland, California. View from window of the Wartime Civil Control Administration station. Moving vans are taking baggage belonging to evacuees of Japanese ancestry to the Assembly center (ARC 537700).
Left: Home of physician of Japanese ancestry, outside the Japanese quarter of town, prior to evacuation from this area of residents of Japanese ancestry (ARC 537864).
Right: San Bruno, California. A close-up of the exterior of a family unit. These barracks were formerly horse-stalls. Each family is assigned two small rooms. The interior one has neither outside door nor window (ARC 537903).
San Bruno, California. Many evacuees suffer from lack of their accustomed activity. The attitude of the man shown in this photograph is typical of the residents in assembly centers, and because there is not much to do and not enough work available, they mill around, they visit, they stroll and they linger to while away the hours. (ARC 537941)
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. (ARC 537964)Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. The first grave at the Manzanar Center’s cemetery. It is that of Matsunosuke Murakami, 62, who died of heart disease on May 16. He had been ill ever since he arrived here with the first contingent and had been confined to the hospital since March 23. (ARC 538184) Manzanar, California. Dust storm at this War Relocation Authority center where evacuees of Japanese ancestry are spending the duration. (ARC 539961)
This entry was posted on August 10, 2009 at 3:42 am and is filed under Dorothea Lange, Historical, Library of Congress, National Archives, People, Places. Tagged: California, Dorothea Lange, Gary Y. Okihiro, Japanese-American internment, Library of Congress, Linda Gordon, Manzanar Relocation Center, National Archives, public domain images, San Bruno, War Relocation Authority (WRA). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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