Newly Released Photos Tell Story of Internment
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In a few minutes, we'll read from your e-mails, but first Impounded. Soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the imprisonment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans. They were forcefully moved from their homes to makeshift internment camps, like Manzanar near Death Valley.
To document the process, the government hired photographer Dorothea Lange, but then quickly impounded her photos. Many of them have never been seen or published until now. A new book features more than 100 of these stark black-and-white images, and sheds new light on this chapter of American history.
If you'd like to take a look at some of these pictures you can go to our Web site at npr.org. If you or any of your family members were held in one of the Japanese internment camps, we'd like to hear your story. Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is
We're joined now by the co-editors of the book “Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.” Linda Gordon is a professor of American history at New York University and Gary Okihiro is a professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia. They join us from our bureau in New York and welcome to you both.
Prof. LINDA GORDON (Editor, “Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment”; Professor of American history, New York University): Nice to be here.
Mr. GARY OKIHIRO (Editor, “Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment”; Professor of Internal and Public Affairs, Columbia University): Great to be here.
CONAN: And why don't we begin with you Linda Gordon. What inspired you to create this book? When did you first see these pictures, for example?
Prof. GORDON: I'm in the middle of writing a biography of Dorothea Lange and I saw the pictures probably for the first time in 2003 at the National Archives. But at that time I just - it never occurred to me that they had never been published. I assumed that somewhere I would find a book of them. And when it actually became clear that I really knew all of the sources about Dorothea Lange I realized that they really needed to get out.
CONAN: And why had they been suppressed for all this time?
Prof. GORDON: They weren't suppressed for all this time. They were only suppressed during the war. But when they were placed in the National Archives, no one brought them to any public attention. They were part of all of the papers and documents related to the work of the War Relocation Authority and other agencies involved in controlling the internment.
There are a number of historians of the internment and a number of photography scholars who knew they were there and had published a couple of these photographs in books. But there are more than 800 photographs and my estimate is that a maximum of 10 of them were ever published.
CONAN: I wonder, Gary Okihiro, as you're looking through that huge collection -and she was a great photographer - how did you pick what ended up in the book?
Prof. OKIHIRO: Well, there are several reasons for selecting them. The first, I think, is the very human story that she tells of old people, young people, women, children and so forth, caught in the act of forcibly being removed from their homes and being detained in these horrible conditions - in horse stalls for example with open latrines and very poor conditions, interior wise. So, the photos that we selected, I think, tended to depict all phases of the removal and the confinement, which are in three phases and then also to show some of the kind of horror involved in the entire process.
CONAN: Did all the pictures survive?
Prof. GORDON: Yes they did, but some of them are not in terrific shape. There's been some problems with thinning of the negatives. We don't really know the history of how these negatives were handled.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation if you'd like to join us 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, e-mail us TALK@npr.org. Our first call comes to us in from Yokohama in Japan. Takao(ph) am I pronouncing that correctly?
TAKAO (Caller): Yes, it's Takao.
CONAN: Takao, go ahead please.
TAKAO: Thank you very much for taking my call.
TAKAO: This is a great show. I'm an avid listener of NPR. Thank you very much one more time.
I am, of course, post-Second War generation, and recently over here in Japan, there was the coverage on the TV news network of the museum, I believe based in California where one of the internment camps was located, and there is a museum showing the exhibits and the materials and documents and so forth of what took place there during World War II regarding the Japanese-Americans.
And first of all, I was really surprised - I'm really surprised about the openness and candidacy(ph) among the American (unintelligible) about this issue, and it still seems like this newly released photographs might be stimulating another round of discussions of what really happened during that time period. And I guess my question for the guest speakers is what does the new development of these newly released photographs could have or add to the discussion of what the ideal life or what it means to be an American citizen today, as well what that continues to mean, to be an American citizen, in the future?
CONAN: It's a question that's come up in the present war, as well as the war in 1941 and '42. Gary Okihiro, I wonder what you think.
Prof. OKIHIRO: That's an excellent question, and in fact it was one of my major motivations for getting involved in this project, once again having written so much on the camps. You know, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act set up a community fund to educate the American public about this event and in the hope that this would never happen again to any group of Americans, whether they are citizens or not. And yet, post-9/11, in 2001 and most recently the USA Patriot Act, among other things, has enabled us to detain people arbitrarily, profile them for religion, primarily on their basis of religion and country of origin, and hold them in indefinite detention, which is again so eerie - so eerily resembles the World War II experience.
CONAN: I wonder, Linda Gordon, is this something you've thought about, as well?
Prof. GORDON: I think it's unavoidable that we think about it, and I think it was very, very central to Dorothea Lange's work. The question is who is an American. At the time that she was working, not only overt racists but, huge proportions of the American population assumed that American meant white. And in her work, even that previous to the documentation of the internment, I think that she was trying to use visual images to create a new and a more capacious understanding of what it meant to be an American.
CONAN: Takao, thanks very much for the question. We appreciate the call.
TAKAO: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Bye-bye. I wonder - let me ask you, Linda Gordon. If these were not impounded, why did not Dorothea Lange do something with them while she was still alive?
Ms. GORDON: Well, during the war she had no access to them. They didn't - were not her property. In fact, she, like I think most photographers who work for the government, she held back a few negatives, and there are a few prints in her private papers. But she couldn't publish them because to do so would've let people know that she had stolen them, so to speak.
Afterwards, she was both very, very busy with other projects and her health was declining. But also what's interesting is that she believed that these were not her best work because the circumstances under which she did this photography were extremely restrictive. There were many things she was forbidden to photograph. She was more or less prevented from getting into conversation with the internees. She only finally saw this work as a whole in 1964, the year before she dies, and at that time, she was using every bit of her remaining energy to prepare for the first one-woman show given to a photographer at the Museum of Modern Art, which occurred in 1965.
CONAN: You can understand - bigger fish to fry, yes indeed. Let's see if we can get John(ph) on the line, John calling us from Tucson, Arizona.
JOHN (Caller): Good afternoon.
JOHN: In 1941, during the internment, I was 18 years old and certainly remember all of it. And I think the problem today is that today's people are looking back at 1941 through today's eyes and not the eyes of we who lived there in 1941. For example, we were attacked. That had never happened in this country before, and it scared the bloody…
CONAN: Scared you to death, we'll take that.
CONAN: We'll take that - scared you to death. Go ahead, John.
JOHN: Oh, okay. We were scared, frightened and all that we knew about the Japanese was that they sent (unintelligible). There was no love for these people; we didn't know them. And so I think today's people must bear in mind that we were quite worried when those bombs fell. I'll listen to the people talking off the air.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call, appreciate. And Gary Okihiro that is a problem when you look at these archival materials, that do you see them a little bit out of context?
Mr. OKIHIRO: Well, absolutely not. I don't believe so. And I can understand John's concern. I mean, clearly there was widespread fear among the American public post-Pearl Harbor. At the same time, those in government knew better. They had been investigating the Japanese-Americans since at least World War I both in Hawaii and on the West Coast and determined through those studies, through the Army, the Navy, the FBI, that there was no mass disloyalty among the Japanese-Americans. In fact, two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens, and that posed a huge problem for the U.S. government. These were not enemy aliens. These were U.S. citizens. And it was Japan who bombed Pearl Harbor. Japanese-Americans had nothing to do with that, as demonstrated in the post-Pearl Harbor reports.
CONAN: And certainly after Germany declared war on the United States, there was no similar occasion to intern German-Americans.
Ms. GORDON: Right.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last question in. Paul. Paul's with us from Bodega Bay in California.
PAUL (Caller): Yes. My question just sort of towed - just goes right along with the previous caller. I was stunned to hear a recent conversation of Japanese internment. We have a lot of Japanese friends here where we live. But I was stunned to have a family member correct me and say that well, they were interned because - it was for their own safety that they were interned.
CONAN: For their protection. Linda Gordon, is that right?
Mr. GORDON: That is certainly what they were told. The fact is that on the one hand, although there was a lot of racism being ratcheted up by the press and political leaders, in fact there's also evidence that many Japanese-Americans were friendly with their Anglo neighbors. Many had white neighbors come to visit them in the camps. I do not believe there was any evidence that their physical safety was significantly threatened. And furthermore, if it had been, this would be an outrageous response. In other words, to - instead of prosecuting people who are going to assault people, you prosecute the intended victims.
CONAN: Linda Gordon, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time. Linda Gordon is professor of American history at New York University. Gary Okihiro, we thank you for being with us, as well.
Ms. OKIHIRO: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Gary Okihiro, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia. They're co-editors of the new book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese-American Internment. And again, you can see some of those pictures in a slide show at npr.org.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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