The great photographer could make naturally beautiful places look even more beautiful. But it says more about his artistry that he could even make a horrible place look compelling.
Several photos by the legendary photographer are the artistic centerpiece of a historical exhibit at 's Sterling Memorial Library, recalling the days during World War II when more than 100,000 men, women and children were removed from their homes and sent to prison camps in the United States because of their ethnicity.
"Out of the Desert: Resilience and Memory in Japanese-American Internment" is an overview of life in the 10 remote camps and other sub-facilities scattered throughout the western United States. During the war with Japan, the government deemed isolating Japanese-Americans to be a "military necessity."
Courtney Sato, a doctoral student in American studies, is the curator. Growing up in Hawaii, she heard stories about the internment camps, though no members of her family were imprisoned. Hawaiians of Japanese descent got off easy; 40 percent of Hawaii's population was of Japanese descent and Hawaii's infrastructure would have collapsed had that many people vanished.
Sato said as she was poring over artifacts from Yale's own collections — photos, drawings, paintings, correspondence, diaries, newspapers and other publications — to find three dominant themes emerged from the tragic history: uncertainty, monotony and resilience.
"There was always a state of uncertainty. They were moved around constantly and they weren't told anything," Sato said.
Another of the exhibit's key pieces is a diary kept by internee Yonekazu Satoda, who wrote about daily life at the Jerome camp in Arkansas. "It tells of the banality of his life," Sato said. "Every single day was monotonous. It really tells what it was like to be interned on a daily basis."
The items in the exhibit illustrate the extraordinary fortitude of the camp prisoners, who lived in cramped barracks and faced temperatures that ranged from 30 below zero in winter to 120 degrees in summer. The families fought boredom with arts and crafts classes, drawing and painting, diary writing, book- and magazine-reading contests, publishing and reading newspapers and corresponding with concerned non-Japanese citizens. Children went to schools that issued yearbooks that looked exactly like yearbooks in the outside world, such as "Campus Echoes" from the Poston (Arizona) camp's Parker Valley High in 1945.
A charming cartoon by 11-year-old Keichi Imamura at the Gila River (Arizona) camp shows a typically boyish fascination with comic books. Drawings and paintings by internees feature scenic views from the barracks.
Gorgeous photographs by Adams emphasize the remote, mountainous dislocation of the internee experience, and also show Adam's command of nature imagery and his respect for the dignity of the people there.
The exhibit is short on the rage that must have been felt every day by the imprisoned. One letter in the exhibit shows that anger. It was written at the Topaz (Utah) camp by inmate Warren Watanabe. Watanabe's acceptance to Yale was rescinded because coastal New Haven was considered a strategically sensitive location. Watanabe called the camp atmosphere "demoralizing" and "inducing a lack of ambition and initiative." Also, a 1942 uprising at the Manzanar (California) camp is recollected in a newspaper headline of the day.
Many artifacts on display, however, show the debate about the imprisonment. Surprisingly, the Japanese-American Citizens League went along with FDR's Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for internment camps. "They wanted to comply to show that Japanese Americans were loyal and patriotic," Sato said. "There was a lot of hyper-patriotic rhetoric.
"Some argued that going along with internment and not raising a huge ruckus was the way to go. ... Many others felt that compliance was a form of subservience," she said. "There was a lot of tension, Nisei vs. Issei. Many felt the second generation were calling the shots and the first generation resented that."
The government categorized Japanese-Americans into three groups: the Issei, the first-generation immigrants ineligible for U.S. citizenship; the Nisei, second-generation Americans by birth; and the Kibei, American-born citizens who were raised or educated in Japan.
Sato said many Japanese-Americans believed the government propaganda that they were being sent away to protect them. They realized it wasn't true when they arrived at the camps. "They were told that racism is so hostile that if we leave you out there, there is a risk for your well-being," Sato said. "It wasn't until they got there and saw the barbed wire and the guns pointed in at them that the sense of injustice hit. They weren't the ones being protected. The other people were being protected from them."
A 1980 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians resulted in 20 days of hearings, at which hundreds of former internees were interviewed. The commission concluded that, rather than a "military necessity," was a "grave injustice" based on "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." Later, a formal apology and reparations were issued.
Still, debate remains. One of the most heated discussions focuses on what to call the camps. In the western United States, where the camps were, scholars take a strong stance.
"The government called them assembly centers or relocation centers, but there wasn't a choice to relocate. It was forced," Sato said. "In California, the phrase internment camps is not used. They call them concentration camps. I used internment camps because it's a more widely understood reference point for my audience, which is primarily people on the East Coast. A lot of former internees use the term. But I can understand why the term angers Japanese-Americans."
"OUT OF THE DESERT: RESILIENCE AND MEMORY IN JAPANESE-AMERICAN INTERNMENT" will be at Sterling Memorial Library, 120 High St., at Yale University in New Haven, until Feb. 26. On Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 4:30 p.m. at the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall St. in New Haven, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta will speak. As a child, Mineta was imprisoned with his family at Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming. web.library.yale.edu/building/sterling-library.
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