The Fisher Center for the Study of Women and Men recently welcomed speaker Jasmine Alinder, an associate professor of history and co-coordinator of public history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her lecture, “Representational Battlegrounds: Photography from Japanese American Incarceration to Abu Ghraib,” explored why photos are made in time of conflict, how they are meant to function and how they can even be used to rewrite history.
During WWII, the image of Japanese Americans seemed to hinge on the camera. Prior to 1942, state sponsored images did not depict Japanese Americans as criminals. “Americans saw smiling faces, not guilty stares,” remarks Alinder. However, after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, pictures created and reinforced the dichotomy between loyal ally and disloyal enemy.
Noted photographer Dorothea Lange, perhaps best known for her photograph “Migrant Mother,” became one of the foremost photographers of Japanese internment. Lange attempted to use her journalistic photography to depict the horrors of incarceration, and expose the social injustices to the public.
Alinder highlighted one photograph in particular that seemed to depict the obvious critical stance Lange took against Japanese internment. Depicted in black and white is Wanto’s Grocery, a store owned by Japanese Americans, with a large sign reading, “I am American” hanging across its front. The Wanto family was forced to evacuate to a camp only days later. “Citizenship was trumped by ancestry,” says Alinder. “Lange saw this and went against the smiling faces of state images, instead depicting injustice.”
Despite Lange’s work, the intolerance and prejudice of the nation was growing. Lange turned to famed photographer Ansel Adams, best known for his landscapes of Yosemite National Park, when it seemed that her efforts were getting her nowhere. Adams likened the harm done to the nation by anti-Japanese propaganda to the damage done to the body by drugs.
In his efforts to continue the work Lange had started, Adams created the photo journal “Born Free and Equal,” to speak directly to issue of loyalty. The book depicted Japanese Americans in every aspect of life in the United States. X-ray technicians, homemakers, and schoolgirls alike were captured by Adams to release them from the role of enemy.
“Adams tried to combat racist propaganda through his tightly cropped portraits – focusing on eyes, nose, and mouth – that which was a signal of automatic guilt,” says Alinder. “The photos brought the viewer close to the subject; they forced them to become familiar with the face, so that they were not looking at an abstracted being.”
However, despite the work of Lange and Adams, the images that represent WWII for the American people are images such as Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.” “Despite hundreds of photos taken of the internment of Japanese Americans, no image has penetrated the American visual conscious,” says Alinder. “Japanese American photos of incarceration seem to compromise the U.S. military and government as wholly honorable. The images widely released seem to portray the exceptionality of the camp as mundane.”
In a growing trend of censorship that began during the Vietnam era, media restrictions on photography have been so effective that there are no “icons” of the most recent wars. The American public is exposed to so few photos of current conflicts they cannot latch onto positive or negative views.
“Censorship policies have had an incredible effect on war photos,” explains Alinder, who cites one newspaper that noted that after five years of conflict in the Middle East – and more than 4,000 deaths – fewer than a half dozen graphics of dead soldiers have been released.
Alinder suggests, however, that instead of pointing fingers at the government, blame should be shared by the American public for avoiding the realities of war. “The horrific content of these images should serve as a warning that war yields human injury and great suffering,” says Alinder. “Witnessing the death through photographs can be a way to acknowledge sacrifice. If you are upset by the photos, we should do something to stop these atrocities.”
Alinder is the author of “Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration.” Her current research, with support from an American Council of Learned Societies Charles Ryskamp fellowship, focuses on photography and the law. She received her Ph.D. in the history of art from the University of Michigan.