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Focus on Research: Jasmine Alinder F'09, F'97 on Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration


ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. We are pleased to present this response from Jasmine Alinder, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Alinder_JasmineAs a historian of photography, my lines of inquiry begin and end with photographic images. For my book on photography and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, I began with a set of color photographs by the contemporary artist Patrick Nagatani. In the mid-1990s Nagatani traveled to the ten main sites, where the government imprisoned nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans, to photograph the remains of the prison camps. Although Nagatani was born after the war, he felt compelled in the 1990s to return to the places where the camps once stood, including the two camps where his own parents had been incarcerated. Patrick was in the middle of his career and had an established working style. But this new portfolio, which touched the personal histories of his own family, deviated formally from his other work. Instead of the postmodern photographic constructions for which he was known, he let the ruined camps communicate their desolation with plain, unadorned color landscape photographs. Those images, I argued, purposefully mimicked calendar photographs so that they could become vehicles to spur intergenerational communication about this tragic event in U.S. history. By ridding his work of the trappings of art, viewers felt comfortable projecting their own memories onto the photographed landscapes.


Patrick Nagatani, "Manzanar, Japanese American Concentration Camp, California, August 13, 1994/MA-13-20-63," black and white reproduction from a color original (courtesy of the artist).

But what about those landscapes? Were the ruins of these camps really still so present, as the photographs suggested? As part of my early research, I thought that being in the physical landscape and walking over the ruined concrete foundations could tell me something about the incident that I could not learn any other way.  Walking over dry earth, coming across shards of china partially buried in the sand, and noticing dime-sized welts in the monument in Topaz, Utah, where locals had taken target practice, gave me both a sense of the stark environments that Japanese Americans faced in camp, as well as the tensions surrounding the memory of these sites in the present. While I drove around the cemetery of another former prison site in Arkansas, my car became lodged in a glue-like mud. I abandoned my car and walked into the small town where I found the post office, which also doubled as a used appliance store. I asked the woman behind the counter for help. She kindly called everyone she knew with a pick-up truck and then inquired about why I was driving around that old cemetery. She remembered the camps. She remembered that the Japanese Americans brought there were treated to electricity and running water, luxuries that her own family couldn’t afford at the time. That was not an interview I had planned nor a memory I expected to encounter, and not one I was prepared to confront. I thanked her for her help, filed the exchange away, and left to meet the tow truck.



Photography in its most banal form can be its most meaningful and powerful. The right to take photographs of growing children and other rites of passage is closely tied to expressions of normalcy, agency, and self.


Although that encounter did not go according to plan, gaining a sense of the physical surroundings did help me understand how central place and environment were to the experience of incarceration. And while that Arkansas conversation was unpredicted, I did set up scheduled interviews with Japanese Americans to get a more personal take on the incarceration. The secondary literature often describes the collective Japanese American response to the incarceration as marked by silence. Though I found exceptions to that silence, including the stunning collection of drawings and captions by Mine Okubo called Citizen 13660, many Sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans) including Patrick grew up with parents who never spoke about their experiences during the war. So when I traveled to Los Angeles to interview his parents, Patrick warned me that his father might be reticent and go so far as to describe camp as “good.” Sure enough, over glasses of iced tea, Mr. Nagatani reasoned that camp was good, as it had given his own father (Patrick’s grandfather) his first vacation.  “Yes,” Mrs. Nagatani interjected, “but it killed him.” Stripped of the power that attends the bread-winning patriarch, his father had turned inward, grown morose, and died before the war ended.

That kind of frank exchange happens more readily in the sphere of oral history. And I was lucky to work on a topic recent enough that people who experienced it were still alive, lucid and willing to share their recollections. Before the conversation ended, Mrs. Nagatani offered to show me her family photo album, which included the one photograph she has of herself while she was imprisoned in Manzanar. That photograph was carefully placed next to a much more recent image of herself with friends from camp re-meeting at a reunion. Decades separated the two images, but on this page in her photo album she allowed her teenage self to meet her middle-aged self. In the photograph from Manzanar, she sits with dozens of other young women under the shade of several tall trees.  At first glance, there is nothing to suggest anything strange about this YWCA club, unless you look carefully and notice the armed guard in the background.


portrait of Mrs. Nagatani's YWCA club in Manzanar

Voices from archival documents can also be disarmingly frank and revealing. Oftentimes, archival research can mean hours of poring over documents in pursuit of evidence that is scant at best. But during the last of several research trips to scour archives, I came across a report that seemed as if had been written for me. I was trying to understand why the photographic image had been important to imprisoned Japanese Americans, and what it must have meant to have their cameras confiscated. Cameras were classified as weapons in the same category as guns, bombs and ammunition. And here was an essay written by someone who identified herself as a “Nisei Woman” that I found in the Manzanar papers. I can’t explain why this document out of the thousands in the collection caught my eye, but I started to read it, and was stunned as this Nisei Woman described in heartrending terms how the removal of her camera kept her from being able to document the growth of her small child. “The confiscation of cameras,” she wrote, “was not something that could be counted in dollars and cents. Here our children are getting older … and once their childhood is gone nothing on this earth can bring it back….” Archives are quiet, austere places. But when I read her words, the distance of time seemed to collapse. I felt the power in her voice, and as a mother myself began to imagine the personal scale of this loss, not just in terms of her freedom, but also in terms of her right to document and preserve the life and progress of her own family. Photography in its most banal form can be its most meaningful and powerful. The right to take photographs of growing children and other rites of passage is closely tied to expressions of normalcy, agency, and self.



Photographs make history. Rather than portholes on the past, photographs are artifacts in their own right that can be mined to enrich historical understanding.


I had started the project with Patrick Nagatani’s contemporary color landscapes and then went back in time, as I examined thousands of documentary photographs that government, press and independent photographs made during the 1940s.  This took me from the prison sites to the National Archives in Washington D.C. and College Park, Maryland to archives in Tucson, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Oakland, as well as to personal collections. In the end, I argued that during the incarceration of Japanese Americans, photography was a representational battleground. The struggle over photography figured in nearly every aspect of the incarceration, including its memory in the present. The government hired photographers in the 1940s to make an extensive record of the forced removal and incarceration, and forbade most Japanese Americans from documenting the conditions of the camps or any aspect of their lives photographically. And more recently, photography had become an important way to remember and recall an event that had been often shrouded in silence. I found that despite the thousands of documentary images made, photographs functioned neither to reveal history transparently nor to obscure it.  Photographs make history. As such, images were integral to the incarceration process from its beginning and shaped the historical events that they purported to disclose. Rather than portholes on the past, photographs are artifacts in their own right that can be mined to enrich historical understanding.

After I finished the book, I remained interested in the authority that the photograph and the camera have been presumed to wield during wartime. For my current project on photography and the law, I began by asking why U.S. courts continue to have faith in the photographic image to act as evidence when scholars have long thought of the photograph as a constructed representation. But research rarely follows a straight line, and as I read secondary sources and case law, the project veered from that initial question right back to the issue of photography and war. I am now investigating the use and censorship of photographs during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I argue that these ongoing wars are the most photographically censored wars in U.S. history. Yet, in a time when we are all inundated with violent media images and the media attention span is so short, why would the U.S. government and military go to such great lengths to keep war images from public view? This is a question that I am still working to answer as I have just completed my Ryskamp fellowship year.

Jasmine Alinder F'09, F'97 received a Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship for her study "The Lens and the Law: The Rights of Photographic Representation" and a Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art for her project "Out of Site: The Photographic Representation of Japanese American Internment." The complete series is available here.

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