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Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment

Gordon, Linda, and Gary Y. Okihiro. Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entering the war, in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which proclaimed that Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were threats to America’s security. They were evicted from their homes and forced into internment camps. The United States War Relocation Authority (WRA) hired a small group of documentary photographers to make a visual record of its “relocation program” (the government’s preferred term for the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans). Dorothea Lange, who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to capture images of Americans struggling to survive the Great Depression, was one of the chosen photographers. Even though Lange adhered to the WRA’s restrictions against photographing armed guards, barbed-wire fences, and internee protests, all of her 760 photographs were impounded for the duration of the war. Gordon and Okihiro selected 119 photographs (with Lange’s original captions) from four phases of the internment for this book. In addition, two essays by the editors provide historical context. Gordon did not uncover why the images were censored, but she states: “These photographs exemplify Lange’s mastery of composition and of visual condensation of human feelings and relationships. They also unequivocally denounce an unjustified, unnecessary, and racist policy.” (6)

This book shows how racial prejudice influenced the government to steal land and property, destroy livelihoods, and break up families and communities, all of which benefited white communities. Impounded also shows how harm can come to those who empathize with the victims. The impounded photos expressed the same compassion found in Lange’s FSA photos, but, clearly, the government did not want Lange to humanize Japanese Americans in the same way as she had portrayed white poverty-stricken subjects during the Depression. These individuals and families lost their homes and left many to question whether they could even call America “home.”