Why the United States Filmed Its Concentration Camps in World War II (and Photographs Commissioned by Dorothea Lange)

During World War II, the United States placed thousands upon thousands of its citizens in concentration camps. The wartime internment of Japanese Americans is a well-known historical event, as well as an extraordinarily well-documented event—not only in the sense that it was extensively documented, but also with exceptional power and artistry. Much of this is credited to Dorothea Lange, the skilful pictorial observer of early 20th century America, who was acclaimed for her symbolism of the Great Depression. immigrant mother.

Published 1936, immigrant mother Under the auspices of the US Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration. In 1941, Lange renounced the Guggenheim Fellowship to collaborate with another government organization, the War Resettlement Authority, and directs its lens toward the internment. “After Japan bombed the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor, a surprise attack that left more than 2,000 Americans dead, Japanese Americans became targets of violence and heightened suspicion,” says the narrator in the Vox Darkroom video above. Fearing the emergence of a “fifth column,” the government arranged for the 120,000 Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast to be moved to remote camps.

“The Roosevelt administration wanted to frame the removal as orderly, humanitarian, and above all necessary.” Hence the creation of the WRA, a department tasked with handling the removal, “and most importantly, documenting it, through propaganda films, publications and news photos”. The project could hardly have landed a more prestigious job than Lange, who set out to depict “the rapid changes taking place in Japanese American communities, including Japanese-owned farms and businesses being closed.” Her work (see various examples here) has captured the last days, even hours, of an existing, multi-generational community about to be dismantled by mass eviction.

The account created by Lange’s frank photos was rejected by the military, many of which were captured and held. The offending photos depicted armed US soldiers overseeing the removal process, “temporary prisons used during the construction of concentration camps”, food lines at assembly centers, and Japanese Americans in US military uniforms. After Lange was released from the show after just four months, WRA kept most of her photos out of the public eye. They remained outside of it until the series of exhibitions in the 1970s, which revealed the true nature of the concentration camps. This term is closely associated with the Holocaust, whose destruction of humanity, of course, cannot be compared with the Japanese-American internment. But as Lange’s photos show, just having such a high moral standing over Nazi Germany is nothing to brag about.

Related content:

Dorothea Lange Digital Archives: Explore Over 600 Photographs by the Influential Photographer (plus negatives, contact papers, and more)

478 photographs by Dorothea Lange impressively document the internment of the Japanese during World War II

Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers, and Frances Stewart Censored Pictures of a Japanese Concentration Camp in World War II

How Dorothea Lang Shot launched immigrant MotherPossibly the most famous photograph in American history

Dr.. Seuss draws anti-Japanese cartoons during World War II, and then comes with Horton Hears A Who!

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts about cities and culture. His projects include books The Stateless City: A Walk Through the Twenty-First Century in Los Angeles and video series The city in the cinema. Follow him on Twitter at Tweet embed or on Facebook.

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