When a Photo Isn't Worth a Thousand Words

Monday, December 18, 2017

Unaltered photos don’t exactly lie, but they can mislead. Consider this series of library photos taken by Dorothea Lange at Manzanar, California on July 1, 1942.

First, let me make it clear that I don’t believe Lange had any intention to mislead. To the contrary, her photos show a real desire to generate sympathy for the Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. As noted in last week’s post, many of her photos show the miserable conditions they were consigned to. She also personalized them with photos of family groups and children or ones showing them improving the camps on their own initiative.

I’m assuming Lange took the library photos because that’s the assignment she was given. But the captions she added had subtle messages contradicting the subject matter. Take the above photo. It appears to show a man comfortably reading (but note the crate for a chair) in a well-stocked library. And at first glance, that’s exactly what the caption says:

A barrack building has been turned into a library at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. A trained librarian of Japanese ancestry employs modern techniques in the management of this library which already contains a large stock of books donated by friends.

“A large stock of books donated by friends.” In other words, the government didn’t take any responsibility for stocking the library. The caption with this photo makes it even clearer.

The Main Library of this War Relocation Authority center. The Librarian is a graduate of the University of California Library School and employs modern library techniques. All books have been donated. [Emphasis added.]

Many donations were used books that people simply didn’t want, so the library collections at the camps weren’t nearly as varied as at public libraries and couldn’t meet the demand for popular reading material. And the donated magazines were probably more outdated than the ones you find in your dentist’s waiting room. The lack of variety comes out in the caption of this next photo.

A corner in the library at this War Relocation center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. This section contains books in the Japanese language, most of which are translations of English classics.

Since books written in Japanese were confiscated before or when the Japanese Americans left their homes, Lange’s caption tells us that they had no access to books with their own cultural stories and history.

Taken alone, these photos imply that the U.S. government was taking good care of the Japanese Americans it had incarcerated against their will. But the real story—or at least part of it—comes out in the captions.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those words can be misleading even without Photoshop.

So be skeptical.


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.

No comments:

Post a Comment