Walmart criticized for selling War Relocation Authority photos

Walmart removed several posters depicting the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans after members of the public notified the company Nov. 11.

The Facebook group “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale,” which protested the 2015 auction of objects from the camps at the New Jersey-based Rago Arts and Auctions, protested the sale of posters depicting the wartime incarceration as “the perfect Wall Art for any home.”

“These are WRA photographs and they are in the public domain. So it may be legal to sell these American concentration camp photos but that doesn’t make it right,” the post said. “In a world where many things are for sale, we find the commercialization of these images particularly ignorant and insensitive.”

The U.S. government created the War Relocation Authority in 1942 to oversee the some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry it had unjustly incarcerated in U.S. concentration camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

Walmart issued a statement Nov. 15 apologizing for having sold the posters. “We are very sorry such a sensitive topic was handled in such an insensitive way. The description used for these products was beyond tone-deaf, and unfortunately it wasn’t caught by us or the marketplace seller who listed these products on our site,” The company said in the statement. “When we were contacted about these over the weekend, we quickly removed the items from our Marketplace. We apologize this wasn’t caught sooner.”

According to Walmart, the posters were put up for sale by a third party entity. Posterazzi, the company selling the posters also responded to the Facebook post that they did not realize the photos had been in their catalog.

“Images come through from suppliers and are automatically put through with computer generated descriptions. We are working on having the posters blocked,” the post said.

The Japanese American Citizens League, a nonprofit civil rights organization, also objected Nov. 11 “to the commercialization of prison photos from the World War II incarceration camps” and said in a Facebook post that the products were “not acceptable wall art for people to ‘enjoy.’”

David Inoue, executive director of the JACL, said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly that he had contacted Walmart, Posterazzi and Granger Historical Picture Archive, a company that collects historical photos and makes them available to the public, regarding the offending merchandise and acknowledged that Walmart had issued a public apology. The issue, however, is not completely resolved.

“We are now also working on Amazon and other major retailers that might have similar products being sold in an insensitive manner,” he said. “I have also had several follow-up calls and e-mails with Walmart to work on fine tuning their filters to be sure to catch Japanese American concentration camp related products that might be sold inappropriately.”

In a similar situation, other online retailers are currently selling multiple images taken from the WRA as prints. A retailer known as Photographic Archives is currently selling prints from the wartime concentration camps on Amazon. Sears also features a print fulfilled by ShopLadder.com, which itself is selling a larger collection of prints including portraits of former inmates taken by Ansel Adams at Manzanar.

In previous years, prints of photographs, put up for sale using a computer algorithm drawing from publicly available images, have brought companies such as Walmart, Sears and Amazon under criticism, when photos from Auschwitz were inadvertently put up for sale on their Websites as “home decor.”

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