Documented: From Exile to Release from Concentration Camps

MOVING IMAGES: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration

By Jasmine Alinder (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 232 pp., $40.00, paperback)

With the advent of digital, cell, and even laptop cameras, we snap endless images knowing that we can just transport them to a worldwide audience or merely delete them into cyberspace without a second thought. There was a time, however, when cameras were considered contraband and Japanese Americans had to turn them, along with guns, knives, explosives and shortwave radios, in to authorities. Of course, the camera could be used as a tool of espionage by Japanese Americans to aid the enemy.

All the while photographers hired by the government were using “the camera” producing thousands of images to “document” the exile of Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast, imprisonment, and eventual release from the concentration camps.

Jasmine Alinder has produced both a smart and highly interpretive study of photographic images produced during this period by famous and not so famous photographers. Alinder is not concerned with the question of “whether or not they provide an accurate view of the incarceration, but rather on how they construct those experiences for a particular audience.”

In short, Alinder examines why photographs were made, how they were meant to function, and how these images have been reproduced by various institutions and media to create their “versions” of public history.

Alinder takes on this task of interpretation by juxtaposing Dorothea Lang and Ansel Adams, who were both hired by the government to “document” the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, with the work of Toyo Miyatake, who smuggled in components of a camera to document what went on in the concentration camps. She provides close, careful, and insightful “readings” of intentionality of both governmental agencies and photographers hired to carry out the mission as well as Adams and Lang’s attempts to subvert the official intent in their own way.

Moreover, Alinder examines photographers like Miyatake who recorded from the “inside” a counter narrative for those in some distant and unknown future. The author further explores these representations by illuminating the ways in which major institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. use these images in their respective public spaces to produce their particular versions of this incarceration history.

Professor Rodger Daniels, series editor, has it right in the foreword of this book when he says: “…in terms of historical photography, the Confucian adage about a picture being worth a thousand words needs to be modified: understanding such photographs takes a thousand words.”

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