Against the background of the debate about squalor and brutality of the USA’s immigrant detention centres – and whether they constitute ‘concentration camps’, a debate I might engage in sometime – it is worth remembering that America has a long history of mass detention camps. Among the most notorious were the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. ‘The Japanese race’, observed General John L DeWitt, head of the US Army’s Western Defense Command, and a key figure in the rounding-up of Americans of Japanese descent, ‘is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on American soil, possessed of American citizenship, have become “Americanized”, the racial strains are undiluted’. ‘The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date’, was for DeWitt, ‘a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.’
The photographer Dorothea Lange – most famous, perhaps, for her images of the Depression and of Dustbowl America – was employed by the War Location Authority to document the camps. The authorities wanted a record to challenge any criticism and to ‘illustrate that they weren’t persecuting or torturing’ the internees. But Lange’s images were disturbing in a more subtle sense. Despite the fact that she was constrained as to what she could photograph and was always chaperoned by the military, Lange’s images were, as her biographer Linda Gordon observes, ‘unmistakably critical. They unequivocally denounced, visually, an unjustified, unnecessary, and racist policy.’
As a result all the photographs were impounded. Deposited in the US National Archives, not till 2006 were they publicly seen, when Gordon stumbled across them while researching Lange’s biography. She and Gary Okihiro published a selection in their book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Photographs of the Japanese American Internment.
Lange took photographs not just of the camps themselves, but of everything that led up to internment, too – the forced closure of farms and business, the sale of internees’ property, the transport to the camps. Two of the key leitmotifs, Gordon observes, are the queues and the tags. The internees
had to spend hours waiting in line. They line up for their preliminary registration, they wait in chairs, they stand waiting before tables at which officials ask questions, fill out forms, receive instructions. Their scant belongings–they were only allowed to take what they could carry–also form queues on sidewalks and dirt roads. They wait for buses or trains to carry them away. They line up to be assigned to their quarters, to collect the straw that they had to use to create mattresses. They line up for toilets and laundry facilities, they wait in line for their meals.
And then there was the tagging of people, ‘as if they were packages’:
The tags do not bear their names but a number: the head of each family received a number with a tag for each member of the family.
Father is 107351A, mother 107351B, children C through F from oldest to youngest, grandmother 107351G, and so on.
Lange, Gordon notes,
is taking us into a brave new world of rationalization and control, featuring the industrial and technological forms of domination described most influentially by Foucault. We see now that what is being stolen is not only farms and education and businesses and jobs but also personal identity. Individuals are registered, numbered, inoculated, tagged, categorized, and assigned. They are herded, segregated, exiled, inspected, billeted, surveilled.
So, here is a selection of Lange’s photos (they are all in the public domain). And if you are interested, Impounded is well worth searching out.
I read somewhere that there were Americans of Japanese descent being conscripted, and sent to fight against Japan in the Pacific, while their own parents were being interned. Is this correct?
Yes, in 1944 the US authorities organized a draft of Japanese Americans from internment camps to the army (where they were to serve in segregated units). Those who resisted the draft were imprisoned in regular prisons rather than detention centres (and remained there after the war, when the internment camps were closed down.) They were also, interestingly, ostracised by many within the Japanese American communities, primarily, I suppose, because their actions were seen as increasing suspicion about Japanese Americans. Much of the story is told in Eric Muller’s book Free to Die For Their Country.
It’s worth noting that after Pearl Harbour, ‘commanders were given the option of discharging Japanese American soldiers [already in the army] or assigning them to “harmless duties”’.