Dorothea Lange and the History of Anti-Japanese American Racism

A review of Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2006).

            In Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment, Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro organize a collection of largely forgotten photographs of Japanese American internment taken by the influential documentary photographer Dorothea Lange. The War Relocation Authority (WRA), which was created to organize the evacuation of Japanese Americans into internment camps, hired Lange to document Japanese American internment. (Gordon, 16) Lange’s photographs were then suppressed by the government for the duration of the Second World War despite the government requesting she take the photographs in the first place, and after the war, the photographs were quietly put in the National Archives. (Gordon, 5) Most of the photographs were never published or circulated. Gordon and Okihiro collect many of these photographs and arrange them into a visual narrative from the before evacuation to the early days inside the internment camps. Before the collections, both editors provide essays a little over 30 pages each giving context to the collection. Gordon gives a biographic narrative following Lange from childhood to her documentation of internment to understand why Lange denounced internment in her photographs despite the political support for it at the time at one point saying, “They (the photographs) also unequivocally denounce an unjustified, unnecessary, and racist policy… Lange’s critique is especially impressive given the political mood of the time.” (Gordon, 6) Okihiro focuses on the story of Japanese Americans and racism against them before, during, and after the war. Okihiro presents an argument that regardless of eventual increased acceptance of Japanese Americans and recognition of wrongdoing by Americans, “it could not restore the losses sustained by a people judged guilty by reason of race.” (Okihiro, 76)

            Gordon’s essay focuses on Lange’s empathy towards Japanese Americans and her lack of anti-Japanese American prejudice that made her so unusual in her time. Gordon uses evidence from Lange’s earlier life to support her portrayal of Lange as an antiracist. Gordon discusses Lange’s childhood going to school in New York City and being immersed in a multicultural environment. After going into documentary photography, Lange documented the plight of agricultural workers for the Farm Security Administration and made sure that the story of black workers was captured in her photographs. (Gordon, 10) After establishing Lange as an antiracist, Gordon describes Lange’s time documenting the internment for the WRA and contrasts Lange with Ansel Adams to reinforce her anti-internment message against Adams’ much less critical photographs.

            Gordon argues that Lange is an anti-racist. Gordon uses Lange’s photography as her main source while also using interviews with people who knew her, quotes from Lange, and secondary sources concerning Lange and the topics she covered. For the most part, Gordon’s argument is compelling. Lange’s progressiveness is conveyed through her actions and her art rather than quotes and organization affiliation; however, there is a problematic quote included. When describing Lange’s early schooling Gordon quotes Lange saying she was, “the only Gentile among 3,000 Jews.” (Gordon, 7) It makes one wonder if any other politically incorrect comments or actions were excluded for the sake of the argument. However, as the argument is presented, it comes across as an unfortunate but not hateful choice of words. Okihiro argues that anti-Japanese American racism existed before and after the war and was not a unique product of wartime. Okihiro uses interviews, personal accounts, government documents, and secondary sources to reinforce his argument. His evidence connected to the reaction to a labor strike in Hawai’i in 1920 was especially convincing. Okihiro isn’t afraid to admit that not every white American supported internment, but the evidence provided makes it clear that the support was unfortunately widespread amongst non-Japanese Americans.

            The collection of photographs in the book is an excellent primary source for understanding to some degree what life in the camps was like, although military officials made sure she was not able to document the most extreme injustices. The editors’ essays give excellent context for the collection although Gordon’s essay may be idealizing Lange a bit too much. A review by Jan Goggans points out that the essays are extremely separate without much interaction or common narrative between them, and this is a complaint I possess as well. A review by Heather Fryer points out the legal precedents Okihiro brings attention to rooting from Japanese American internment which is frighteningly relevant in the current war on terror if the wrong situation arises. Both of these reviews shower Impounded in praise, and Impounded is a fantastic source worthy of the reception it received.

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