Hidden HIstory

Monday, December 11, 2017

Two weeks ago, I participated in a library book fair. Although I was selling copies of all my books, I wanted to highlight Desert Jewels, my middle-grade novel about the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. So I put together a photo album with some of the official photos taken at the time by War Relocation Authority photographers.

I had plenty of pictures to choose from, but I was especially grateful for the ones that had recently become publicly available. Obviously, the Internet has increased access to almost everything, but that’s only part of this story. The other part is that many of Dorothea Lange’s most unsettling photos were quietly suppressed by the Army and buried in the National Archives. If you are interested in learning more about that story, I recommend Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. It’s worth buying just for the photographs.

Look at the picture at the top of this post, which Dorothea Lange took on June 30, 1942 in one of the hastily erected barracks at Manzanar, California. Manzanar was the first camp to be constructed, and many of the earliest residents lived there the entire time they were incarcerated. However, most of the Japanese Americans lived in temporary “assembly centers” while their more “permanent” accommodations were being built. Lange took the photos below on June 16, 1942 at the Tanforan Assembly Center, which was a former race track where horse stalls were converted into living quarters. There were some hastily-built barracks there, too, but I’m guessing that the interior photo shows one of these horse stall apartments.

As you can see, the living accommodations were anything but luxurious, and they came with minimal furnishings—one cot per person and nothing else. Eventually the Japanese-American residents built furniture from scrap lumber and found other ways to make their quarters more comfortable, but they had to rely on their own limited resources to do it.

Dorothea Lange didn’t last very long as a War Relocation Authority photographer, but I’m glad we have found the record that she left.

Photos are a great source of historical research, and they seldom lie. But even before Photoshop there were ways to make them tell a misleading story.

I’ll talk about that next week.


All photographs in this post were taken by Dorothea Lange. They are in the public domain because she was a War Relocation Authority photographer and the photos were taken as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government.

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