Amid injustice, unforgettable images

Japanese Americans held at Manzanar demonstrated dignity and resilience.

'Manzanar Majorette Corps (1944)' Toyo Miyatake. From Displaced: Manzanar 1942-1945, The Incarceration of Japanese Americans

Not so long ago, the Japanese were the most distrusted ethnic group in the United States. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, some 110,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put into prison camps. There were no trials; there was no vetting. Farmers, shop owners, and schoolchildren were all forced to leave their homes and businesses to live in overcrowded barracks surrounded by barbed wire for the duration of World War II.

Displaced: Manzanar 1942-1945, The Incarceration of Japanese Americans features images by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange as well as other photographers and two of the prisoners. Their photographs tell a story of grace under pressure. An older man sits in a chair exuding dignity and defiance during the evacuation. Three smiling majorettes strike a pose – an image that could have been taken on any high school football field at halftime. Their outfits, hairstyles, and attitude are all-American. On page after page, the faces looking out at us are hopeful and resilient, despite the humiliation and cruelty they endured. As Pico Iyer writes in the introduction: “In the end, what makes these pictures unforgettable is that even amidst the bleakest of American realities, our Japanese neighbors were working around the clock to honor the American Dream.”

Hundreds of thousands of War Relocation Authority photos were taken of the camps – many of these more propaganda than reality. But this collection draws heavily on WRA photographer Lange’s work, which was initially impounded since she sought to show the desolation and loss of her subjects. Her photographs were relegated to the National Archives, where they remained unseen for decades. Manzanar closed on Nov. 21, 1945. Exiting prisoners were given $25 and a one-way ticket for the bus or train. In 1982, a bipartisan federal commission declared that “a grave injustice” had been done to Japanese-Americans, noting that their forced removal was caused by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

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