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