The history of wartime photography is a history of blood, death, and utter gruesomeness. Eddie Adams’ most famous Vietnam War image epitomizes that principle, depicting a South Vietnamese general standing on a Saigon street and shooting a captured Viet Cong member in the head. But wartime photography has also produced a reservoir of bloodless imagery related to prisoners of war. And that’s on display in a new San Francisco exhibit on the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II.
“Then They Came for Me” is a damning portrait of an American political and military system that — out of fear, racism, and other toxic thinking — rounded up more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans from West Coast states in the aftermath of Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack. Ordered to leave their homes and communities for isolated, barbed-wired camps, the affected went through a series of humiliations and hardships that included going to “assembly centers” like the one at San Bruno’s Tanforan Racetrack, then traveling to “relocation centers” like the one at Manzanar, where they were guarded by gun-toting soldiers in towers. The incarcerated could take only what belongings they could carry. Government-paid photographers, including Dorothea Lange, documented the entire cycle. And that’s what’s on disturbing display in “Then They Came for Me,” where we see the everyday lives they left behind and the nightmarish lives they endured.
On May Day in 1942, for example, Lange visited a farm near Sacramento and photographed a Japanese-American tenant farmer sitting on what looks to be a piece of wood. He’s smoking a cigarette, facing downward as he readies himself for a government camp. A few weeks earlier, Lange went to a Japanese-American registration center in San Francisco, where she photographed a 25-year-old woman named Shizuko Ina as Ina waited in line on the street, next to two ominous government posters. Four months pregnant, Ina would go to Tanforan to live in a former horse stall, eventually moving to the Tule Lake incarceration camp, near the Oregon border. Like Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother photo from 1936, which showed a woman and her children in the Great Depression, Lange’s 1942 images capture the painful uncertainty that her subjects felt.
Photographers documented the camp conditions at Manzanar, Tule Lake, and other outposts where families tried to live with dignity despite, as one example, sleeping on cots in barracks that frequently allowed the elements to seep in. The camps existed until 1945, and “Then They Came for Me” — a reference to German pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem about cowardice in the face of rising Nazism — notes the parallel societies that grew up within them. Some camps eventually had stores, churches, movie theaters, and beauty parlors; inmates at Manzanar even built a golf course. “To battle boredom and earn spending money in the camps, about 30 percent of the inmates held jobs,” from nursing to working in camp factories, the exhibit states, and images show them doing these jobs.
Keith Secola, Many Wounds. Photo by Jonathan Curiel.
Ansel Adams went even further. His 1943 portraits of people incarcerated at Manzanar show them smiling or posing, with no context of the camp’s conditions. His portraits of those who’d affirmed their loyalty to the United States are almost head shots — and after exhibiting them at New York’s MOMA in 1944, some critics accused him of sanitizing the U.S. government’s wrongdoings, while other critics said his images wrongly humanized people whom the U.S. government should have treated with suspicion because of their potential loyalty to Japan.
The debate over Adams’ portraits “continues today,” the exhibit notes — and that’s evident in the reaction of Satsuki Ina, who was born in the Tule Lake camp to Shizuko Ina, the woman Lange photographed in San Francisco. Satsuki Ina tells SF Weekly that Adams’ images in “Then They Came for Me” are the product of a de facto coercion. Japanese-Americans who met Adams at Manzanar were displaying “determination — it’s certainly not joy,” says Ina, who is now an activist and psychotherapist.
“Here’s a white man who’s taking your picture, and there’s this feeling of being special, there’s a novelty of it, and there’s also a white privilege that he brings,” she says. “So we do what he says, and if he says, ‘How do you like it here?’ they smile, and ‘click,’ he takes the picture. It’s complicated.
“My mother wrote in her diary, ‘I wonder if today’s the day they’re going to line us up and shoot us?’ ” she adds. “There was fear. I don’t know if they would show that fear overtly to someone who is taking a photo of them. And taking a photograph [then] isn’t just an iPhone snapping quickly. It’s a guy with a tripod and a giant camera that’s setting up and asking you to pose.”
The exhibit — whose full title is “Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties” — is just a minute’s walk from a more popular art destination in the Presidio. The Walt Disney Family Museum is where kids and their parents crowd into spaces to laugh at Mickey Mouse, see Disney films, and take in the history of Disney’s commercialism. There, visitors learn about Disney’s World War II propaganda films for the U.S. government, but they don’t see the full, seven-minute version of Commando Duck, Disney’s 1944 animation that uses Donald Duck — and racist, jingoistic stereotypes of Japanese people — to foment anti-Japanese sentiment. In Commando Duck, Disney had one Japanese soldier say, “Japanese custom say always shooting a man in the back, please,” while he drew another Japanese soldier with big yellow teeth, a reference to the idea that Japan was a “yellow peril.”
It wasn’t just the U.S. government that created hysteria around Japanese-Americans. Many “average” Americans bought into the idea, as did prominent Americans like Walt Disney. And in the targeted communities, many Japanese didn’t fight the government’s order. They “volunteered” to go to the incarceration camps to show just how loyal they were to their adopted or homegrown country. But “Then They Came for Me” includes the stories of activists like Bay Area native Fred Korematsu, whose legal challenge to the 1942 edict went to the Supreme Court and whose post-incarceration stories are just as important as their lives at Manzanar and other camps.
Legally speaking, the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans wasn’t a war crime, but it was a moral crime. And while the incarcerated weren’t technically prisoners of war, they were so in a de facto sense. The United States government eventually acknowledged its grievous mistake in 1988 when then-President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that apologized for the World War II incarcerations and authorized payments of $20,000 to each survivor. “Then They Came for Me” connects the incarceration of Japanese-Americans with current events and activism, including anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-immigration fears.
The subject is ideal as a photo exhibit, but “Then They Came for Me” is much, much more. It displays “anti-Jap” posters and other material from World War II, including “Jap hunting licenses” and a “How to Spot a Jap” guidebook. It displays a doll that a Japanese-American girl took with her into the family’s forced exile. It displays actual luggage that families carried to the camps. And the exhibit uses words like “incarceration” instead of “internment” that eschew past U.S. government euphemisms.
Those who experienced the camp, and scholars of the period, now frequently refer to Manzanar and other sites as “concentration camps.” It’s hard to argue with that terminology after seeing “Then They Came for Me.” People died in the camps and from diseases they caught there. Within camps, many were jailed — as was Satsuki Ina’s father, Itaru Ina, for protesting camp conditions. While many of the incarcerated returned to bountiful lives, and tried forgetting what happened there — or at least tried to avoid talking about it because of shame and trauma — “Then They Came for Me” resurrects everything that happened, and scales up the size. Some of the photos are virtually life-size.
“There were images that were familiar to me, but in books and small print, and to have them blown up to almost life-size was very emotional for me,” says Satsuki Ina, who’s 74 and lives in Oakland. “I went in before everyone got there, and it felt like those people in the images were actually in the room telling their story.”
In “Postcolonial Revenge” at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, painters, sculptors, and other artists take a more explicitly critical approach toward past U.S. government policies. But the exhibit widens the approach to include systems of “hetero-patriarchal” beliefs that Western governments and its citizens have practiced against people they considered inferior. Standout works include Keith Secola’s Wounds Many and India (Delphina Ballard), both screen prints on book covers with a Native American theme; and Chris Marin’s lengthy oil painting, Lift Me Up Pt. 2, whose scenes of violence, celebration, and everyday life are red, elliptical dreamscapes into a past that seems so real you can touch and feel it.
Photographer Michael Lundgren finds rock formations, trees, plateaus, and other natural surfaces that — through his picture-taking — become transcendent totems of form and feeling. At Equinom Gallery, “Michael Lundgren: Geomancy” shows off a series of these totemic images, including Tablet and Welded Tuffa, where darkness and light deepen scenes that are already laden with artful contrasts to ponder.
“Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties” through May 27, at 100 Montgomery St. in the Presidio. Free; 415-923-9795 or thentheycame.org.
“Postcolonial Revenge,” through Feb. 22, at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission St. $5; 415-643-2785 or missionculturalcenter.org.
“Michael Lundgren: Geomancy,” through Feb. 23, at Equinom Gallery, 1295 Alabama St. Free; 415-823-2990 or equinomgallery.com.