The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” doesn’t quite to justice to the 170 black-and-white historical photos compiled in the photo book “Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War.”
Co-authored by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, “Un-American” is a remarkable and outstanding compilation of photographic images of Japanese Americans before, during and after President Frankin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. It’s filled with photos culled from the the National Archives in College Park, Md.
While some photos may bring a smile, many are melancholy and some are haunting, and while viewing them, some photos can evoke anger, but some can bring sadness and a tear.
The approach taken by Cahan and Williams was to reproduce the images direct from negatives and prints, uncropped but enlarged, sometimes spreading over a couple of pages. As they are uncropped, many images have handwritten notes included, giving the date, location and description. It’s gorgeous and a worthy companion to 2009’s “Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens,” by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi with Kenichiro Shimada, another photo book compiling photos shot by Hikaru Carl Iwasaki.
Most of the photographs in “Un-American” were taken by War Relocation Authority photographers Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers, Francis Stewart, Tom Parker, Charles Mace and the aforementioned Iwasaki, but also included are the photos from Manzanar by non-WRA photographer Ansel Adams.
“Un-American” is published by Chicago-based CityFiles Press (cityfilespress.com/), a boutique publisher specializing in photographic books. According to a C-Span video, co-author Cahan describes himself as a journalist, having worked for The Chicago Sun-Times, but in the context of the book he is a photo historian.
In the aforementioned video, it’s interesting to learn that Cahan’s knowledge about the Japanese American experience during WWII was limited.
“I wrote this book for the exact opposite reason that people usually write books. If you’ve ever thought about writing books, people always tell you write about the things you know,” Cahan said. “I wrote because I didn’t know much about this. I live in Chicago and I think the farther you get from California, the less you know that about this story.”
(Similarly, I didn’t know about “Un-American” until I serendipitously came across a copy at the Santa Monica Library. A search of Rafu.com didn’t provide any hits, so maybe it’s as new to you as it was to me.)
Among the photographers listed, Adams is probably the best known, although Lange is no doubt well-known for “Migrant Mother,” the famous photo of a young woman with two children, faces hidden, as she stares pensively, worried and worn beyond her years.
One of Lange’s WRA shots of men looking out the windows of a train provides the book’s cover, and it’s her shots that more than any seem to provide the bewilderment (and dignity) of the Japanese American subjects.
Adams, who shot his photos at Manzanar just a few years later, took a different tack, that, while beautiful and artistic, were as likely to show the majestic scenery near the camp, as well as the individuals.
“There are many people now who believe that because he showed this ‘sunny side of life in the camps,’ that the pictures are very suspect,” said Cahan. He also noted, however, that Adams “later said this was the most important work of his life” and that while he wanted to show the difficulties of camp, by the time he took his pictures, the incarcerees had adjusted to living there.
While it remains amazing that the government did document this history so well, many authorities were loathe to show realities such as barbed wire, the military presence or signs of resistance; Lange’s sympathy for her subjects that is so apparent in her photos probably led to the WRA decision to part ways with her.
On that, it’s worth noting that “Un-American” contains several photos that were impounded by said authorities. Also included are photos of homes that were vandalized or hit by robbers after Japanese Americans left for the camps, as well as photos from and of the camps after they were abandoned.
For Cahan, producing “Un-American” had a personal, positive effect. “What made so special to me was this remarkable opportunity to find the people who are in the photographs,” he said. “Tracking these people down was the highlight of my life.”
“Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II” (ISBN-13: 978-0991541867) is 240 pages; copies signed by the authors can be purchased for $49.95, plus tax and shipping, by visiting http://tinyurl.com/hb9nqu7. It’s also available at the JANM’s gift shop in Little Tokyo or via JANMStore.com for $39.95. To view the aforementioned C-Span video, visit http://tinyurl.com/y9q754xc.
There is another video that can be found online that is worthy of being watched and it’s from “The Media and the Japanese American Incarceration and Its Lessons for the Trump Era,” a panel discussion from May 25, which can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/ycu95vqe.
It’s from another event that no doubt was part of the 75th anniversary of E.O. 9066. That event featured Los Angeles Times publisher Davan Maharaj, author and journalist Richard Reeves (he also appears in the C-Span video), author and former Rafu Shimpo editor Naomi Hirahara, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles’ VP of Programs Karin Wang.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.