Labor Arts celebrates the publication of an important new book with this exhibit.  The book is Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment, edited by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro (Norton, 2006).  Our exhibit features images from the book, additional images from the archives, and an introduction by Linda Gordon.

As you look at the images -- try to imagine what they would convey if we did not have Lange's captions beside them.


Dorothea Lange was one of the great documentary photographers. Her work influenced our very conception of what documentary photography is. Her best-known work, photographs of migrant farmworkers and sharecroppers of the Depression of the 1930s, is so widely published that those who do not know her name almost always recognize her pictures.

But few know that she was hired by the War Relocation Authority to photograph the internment of 116,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. These prisoners were never even charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Two-thirds of them were US citizens, born in the US–the remainder were not allowed to become citizens because at that time people of Asian origin were prohibited from naturalization. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the American anger focused not on the Japanese Imperial government, its expansionist goals, and its role in the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis,  but on the Japanese as a "race". Racist anti-Japanese propaganda was already well developed on the west coast, but after the attack it was ratcheted up by politicians, the press and, quite likely, big agribusiness interests who thought (quite accurately, it turned out) that they could buy Japanese farms at discounted prices. Now the pejorative verbal and visual rhetoric about Asian Americans honed in on Japanese Americans, and was intensified and expanded to include completely uncorroborated allegations of disloyalty and treason.

As the Los Angeles Times justified the policy, "A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched ..."

In February 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued executive order 9066, requiring the relocation of all Japanese Americans, regardless of their citizenship.

Only a tiny minority of Americans openly opposed the imprisonment of these innocent people. Liberals and leftists, even those who explicitly opposed racism, remained silent because they thought, quite erroneously as it turned out, that such measures were needed to defeat the Nazi-Japanese-Italian alliance--and their beloved President Roosevelt told them that the internment was necessary.

The War Relocation Authority hired Lange for the photographic job because she had proven a reliable government photographer in the 1930s and because she lived in San Francisco, central to most of the Japanese American population. She worked at the job virtually every day from February through July of 1942. Her previous work documenting the depression had developed in her to strong sympathies for those at the bottom of the class and race structures in this country, and she disapproved of the internment before she started to photograph it. Nevertheless, she was not prepared for what she saw. Her photographs show how people were ripped from their lives on short notice, forced to sell property at great losses, give up homes and furnishings, leave jobs and schools; how they were lined up, registered, tagged like packages, allowed to bring only what they could carry; then they were housed in crude barracks (and in one location in horse stables at a race track); and they were surrounded by prison regulations: no cameras, no books or magazines in Japanese, meals in large mess halls with food often ladled out from garbage cans, collective toilets, whole families sleeping in one "room" barely partitioned off from adjoining families–singles sleeping in huge wards with long rows of cots.

Lange's photographs make her condemnation of the policy quite clear, clear enough that the army brass did not want the pictures publicly released. After the war, they were deposited in the National Archives. A few have been used by scholars and a small selection in a publication of several different photographers' work by the Asian American Studies Center of the University of California/ Los Angeles, but Lange's images have never been published or exhibited on their own. Now a new book features 119 out of the approximately 800 photographs she made: Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment, edited by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro (Norton, 2006).







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