When war broke out in December 1941, cameras were deemed contraband, along with weapons and radios. Yet, photographers working under the auspices of the U.S. government’s War Relocation Authority took the majority of the thousands of photographs of the forced removal and incarceration of the Japanese Americans in government prison camps between 1942 and 1945.

In Elizabeth Partridge and Lauren Tamaki’s vivid picture book “Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams’ Photographs Reveal About the Japanese American Incarceration,” we follow the photographers as they document the forced removal of the Japanese American community into prison.

Suitable for younger readers age eight and up, “Seen and Unseen” recounts the brutal swiftness with which government leadership condoned nearly 126,000 American citizens and Japanese aliens into camps, and the heartbreak, bewilderment, humor and endurance of this traumatizing experience.

Through the lens of the camera, we witness ways that mass media manipulated the general public to see and unsee what was transpiring in the remote concentration camps. This dark tale is a compelling read that offers three versions of spinning the government lie of the military necessity behind the incarceration.

Author Partridge is a skilled evoker of time and place, and her enthusiasm for photography and the personal histories of these three artists allows their narratives to flow. Her text is clear and unsentimental, driven by a curiosity to understand both the photographer’s internal motivations as well as the conundrums of the government’s racist policies. However, it is Tamaki’s terrific ink illustrations and design that carry the book. Her visual storytelling moves the story forward, as well as invokes an extraordinary mood by graphically charting the stages of degradation, chaos and daily living from both sides of the camera, moving fluidly from the photographer’s perspective and their subjects, to the subjects themselves, in all their humanity. Her drawings feel historic (in part due to the restrained use of an impactful yet subdued color palette), but in an illustration style that is utterly her own.

Tamaki’s drawings are employed to fill in what the WRA photographers were forbidden to photograph (as in Lange’s case) or chose not to photograph (as in Adams). I especially love how her drawings can emote at such an incredible range: in one passage, we watch a woman with a bag of groceries wending her way through a barrage of anti-Japanese signs with a troubled expression on her face, as the flowers in her bag fully droop in dismay and shed petals like tears. In another, we count the residents of Miyatake’s barrack through an intimate drawing of the family’s shoes lined up by the door.

The intelligent placement of the illustrations on the page allows characters to read lists of restrictions, floods the page with movement, or stops us in our tracks as we contemplate the worst outcomes. There is so much clever use of visual language, such a repetition of circles, which at one moment symbolizes the lens of a camera, then a moon or sun, then a desert stone held up to the light.

Through an e-mail interview about her process, Tamaki said, “I researched for a while — close to a couple years. I kept finding more and more imagery and stories. It was important to make each person feel like an individual, so I paid a lot of attention to expressions. The mountains of research helped me with the details: to the cut of pants to the type of weapons the guards used. I wanted the reader to feel like they were bearing witness to this shameful history through the use of photos, illustration and primary source documents,” Tamaki said. She added, “Close ups of faces and visuals that gave the past texture were important. I hope the book makes this subject accessible and that the humanity of the people affected shines through.”

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