Then They Came for Me is an invaluable exhibition that packs a considerable (and necessary) wallop.
Then they Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II , International Center for Photography Museum, 250 Bowery, New York, through May 6.
By Helen Epstein
After the second world war ended and some of the devastation of the deportations and camps were revealed, Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a German, a Protestant pastor, camp survivor and poet, wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The ICP’s informative and often shocking exhibit documents the deportations of Japanese Americans to internment camps in the United States. Carried out at about the same time as the Nazi deportations, they evoke much of the same iconography: hastily boarded up shops, racist signage, people carrying hastily packed suitcases, desolate barracks –- some, repurposed horse stables — communal toilets. The bare-bones museum, founded by Cornell Capa to preserve the legacy of “concerned photography,” feels like an especially apt location for this exhibit. Situated on the still grungy, gentrified Bowery, it’s close to Chinatown, a large community of Asian-American immigrants.
The deportations of 1942 were the result of FDR’s Executive Order 9066, signed less than three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It forced the sudden removal and imprisonment of 120,000 U.S. citizens and legal residents of Japanese ancestry living on or near the West Coast. Beginning in March of 1942, they were deported from their homes and imprisoned in rudimentary camps located in desert and swamp areas in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Many remained until 1946 and, over this time, the U.S. government commissioned a group of photographers to document their living conditions.
Why did the U.S. War Relocation Authority’s Information Division wish to document what was euphemistically called a “relocation”? In her book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment, Linda Gordon writes that there is no definitive answer but that visual documents made by authorized photographers could be used to refute allegations of mistreatment and violations of international law. The internees themselves were forbidden to own cameras.
Had local rather than federal administrators been in charge, there might, perhaps, not have been any photographs. While official photographers were given strict guidelines about what not to photograph — no barbed wire, armed guards or watchtowers – they could not control the photographer’s eye. Dorothea Lange, Gordon writes, was outraged by what she witnessed but tried to maintain a facade of neutrality and to keep her aesthetic values intact. Her photographs are classic, impeccably composed, yet that didn’t keep them from being seized and impounded by the government. Ironically, because they are still held by the National Archives, they remain in the public domain and are now accessible to anyone interested in them.
Ansel Adams, then perhaps the best-known photographer in America, was invited to photograph the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California by a friend who admired his landscapes. Although he made several portraits of prisoners, these photographs could have been taken in his studio for all the viewer can tell. His shots of Manzanar focus on snow-capped mountains rather than mud or the primitive living conditions. Unlike Lange’s work, which was kept away from the public, Adams’ pictures were shown at the Museum of Modern Art and, in 1944, published in Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese Americans.
Far lesser known Clem Albers was a photojournalist who had documented the building of San Francisco’s bridges. His photographs zero in on details of the ways in which the deportees were transported and housed.
Unlike the other photographers of Then They Came for Me, Toyo Miyatake, was a prisoner at Manzanar. He worked in secret from a camera he built from a wooden box that he asked a fellow prisoner to make and parts he had smuggled into the camp. At first, he hid his work but eventually the director of the camp made him its official photographer and allowed him to publish some of it in the camp newspaper. An L.A. portrait photographer before his deportation, he took pictures of his son Archie and his friends and, in one of his most striking shots anticipating liberation, his son’s hand, holding a wire clipper to a barbed wire fence with a watchtower looming in the background.
The photographs are complemented by videos of interviews with internment camp survivors and their families as well as other documents. Artist Miné Okubo produced a graphic memoir of daily life in the camps, Citizen 13660, text and detailed (189) pen and ink drawings that was later published as a book.
The curators of Then They Came for Me, which originated in Chicago as a collaboration between Alphawood Exhibitions and the Japanese
American Service Committee, have taken pains to contextualize the photographs. A historical prologue, illustrated with documents, highlights the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) that established racially restrictive U.S. immigration policy; the Japanese government’s 1885 termination of its ban on emigration that set off a wave of Japanese seeking work in Hawaii and California, and the backlash of anti-Asian racism that followed.
They provide a short summary of legal rights that were ignored by Executive Order 9066, guarantees afforded by the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendements to the U.S. constitution. And they also exhibit a short primer called Words Matter: The Power of Language to Shape History, a lexicon of official terms/euphemisms pertaining to the camps, containing such locutions as – Evacuee/Internee=Inmate, Detainee=Prisoner; Assembly Center=Temporary Detention Center. Although the term “concentration camp” was used at the time, even by government officials, the curators have chosen to use incarceration camp to avoid confusion with the Nazi death camps.
Given today’s political climate, Then They Came for Me is an invaluable exhibition that packs a considerable (and necessary) wallop.