21 powerful photos show what life inside a Japanese internment camp was like.


Dorothea Lange’s work was hidden away for more than 60 years.

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When the U.S. government hired photographer Dorothea Lange in 1942, she thought she’d be documenting history for the world to see.

After spending much of the 1930s snapping candid shots of Americans during the Great Depression, Lange was offered the chance to document Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.

While she was personally opposed to internment, Lange accepted the government’s offer in hopes that her work would provide a valuable record of events for future generations.

Tenant farmer of Japanese ancestry who has just completed settlement of their affairs and everything is packed ready for evacuation in Woodland, California. All photos by Dorothea Lange/National Archives.

Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School in San Francisco, California.

Grandfather of Japanese ancestry teaching his little grandson to walk at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees at Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California.

For more than 60 years, Lange’s work sat in the National Archives, hidden from public view.

U.S. military officials were unhappy with Lange’s honest and sympathetic look at what life was like for the more than 110,000 people living in internment camps and, as a result, seized her work and locked it away.

It wasn’t until the 2006 release of “Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment” that many of Lange’s suppressed images resurfaced in a meaningful way.

Saturday afternoon shoppers reading an order directing evacuation of persons of Japanese ancestry. This store on Grant Avenue in Chinatown was vacated by an art dealer of Japanese descent.

Kimiko Kitagaki, a young evacuee guarding the family baggage prior to departure by bus in one half hour to Tanforan Assembly Center in Oakland, California.

Making artificial flowers in the art school at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry at Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California.

Though the government has never offered an explanation for why Lange’s photos were held, the reasoning is pretty clear: They showed us a glimpse of the internees’ humanity.

The decision to house Japanese-Americans in internment camps is largely looked back on as a scar on American history. In issuing Executive Order 9066 and authorizing the internment camps on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt embraced the fear of the “other,” a sentiment that directly opposed the famous line from his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Japanese mother, wife of interned Shinto priest with youngest of her nine children who are American born in San Francisco, California.

A young evacuee looks out the window of bus before it starts for Tanforan Assembly Center in San Francisco, California.

The first contingent of evacuees of Japanese ancestry board the buses for assembly centers in San Francisco, California.

Two years later, in 1944, Roosevelt suspended the executive order, beginning the process of closing the internment camps, but the damage was done.

Internees were released, though for many, they no longer had a home. Even worse, the government did nothing to help them financially. Japanese-Americans were forced to rebuild their lives from scratch. The entire ordeal was one injustice after another as none of the internees had done anything to deserve being forcibly uprooted and detained.

Residents of Japanese ancestry file forms containing personal data two days before evacuation in San Francisco, California.

An early comer arrives with personal effects in San Francisco, California.

Street scene of barrack homes at this War Relocation Authority Center at Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California.

It wasn’t until 1988 that the U.S. offered any sort of formal apology or reparations to surviving detainees.

President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which called internment “a grave injustice” and acknowledged that “these actions were carried out without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage … motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Each surviving internee received $20,000.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush issued another formal apology to those affected by internment:

“In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”

It’s with that in mind that Lange’s photos remain essential today.

Making camouflage nets for the War Department at the Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California.

Guayule beds in the lath house at the Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California.

High school boys on balcony of Japanese American Citizens League in San Francisco, California.

Today, as the country grapples with threats of war and terrorism, some are suggesting that we once again implement this sort of wide-range racial stereotyping.

On Nov. 16, 2016, one of Donald Trump’s supporters appeared on Fox News’ “The Kelly File” to advocate for a Muslim registry. Asked about the legality of such a program, proposed by the president-elect, Trump supporter Carl Higbie cited Japanese internment to support his position that the U.S. could and should create a database of Muslims in the U.S.

This is the exact wrong lesson to be taken away from what happened during World War II. If we are to once again cave to a fear of the “other,” we’ll only be setting ourselves up for future shame over human rights abuses.

Field laborers of Japanese ancestry in front of Wartime Civil Control Administration station in Byron, California.

A child evacuee of Japanese ancestry gets a haircut at Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California.

An art school wall has been established in this assembly center in San Bruno, California.

Lange’s photos are essential artifacts of American history, and it’s no wonder that they’ve been getting increased attention in late 2016.

On Dec. 6, 2016, Tim Chambers of Anchor Editions devoted a blog post to Lange’s “lost” photos, publishing in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. In addition to his blog post, he’s selling prints of Lange’s work, donating half of the proceeds to the ACLU, a group that fought for the rights of those detained during Japanese internment and has vowed to push back on efforts to create religious or ethnicity-based profiling.

Greenhouse on nursery operated, before evacuation, by horticultural experts of Japanese ancestry in San Leandro, California.

A young evacuee arrives at 2020 Van Ness Avenue, meeting place of first contingent to be removed from San Francisco to Santa Anita Park Assembly center at Arcadia, California.

Residents of Japanese ancestry appear for registration prior to evacuation in San Francisco, California.

As Bush said, “No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past.” Lange’s work, in its pain and its beauty, reminds us of the disgraceful past we must never return to.

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