‘Then They Came For Me’: New Exhibit Examines Troubled Moment in US History

Photography by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy of National Archives.

by Luis A Gómez
Co-deaditor in Chief

The three boys are dressed plainly in slacks and drab shirts, each sporting close-cropped hair. The landscape behind them goes on for miles, until the snow-capped mountains graze against the sky. Were it not for the barbed wire and guard tower, the scene could almost be called peaceful.

Around the photo of the three boys are more pictures, ones that show plain-looking people wearing conventional clothing in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. There are doctors and teachers, high school students, elderly grandparents, and newlyweds. All of them are commonplace folks. All of them Japanese American.

The International Center for Photography (ICP) may not have much by way of floor space, but its newest exhibit, “Then They Came For Me,” which examines the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, manages to incorporate almost 150 photographs. The exhibit, which originally premiered at Chicago’s Alphawood Gallery in June 2017, brings together a collection of noteworthy photographs from Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, created on assignment from the federal War Relocation Authority. Also included are surreptitious pictures taken from within the camps by Japanese American photographers like Toyo Miyatake, mixed with video testimony from incarcerated Japanese Americans, and a collection of personal items, from letters to anti-Japanese propaganda leaflets.

Ryan Yokota, director of the Japanese American Service Committee’s (JASC) Legacy Center archives, said that the curatorial committee tried to emphasize clearly that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was not a singular moment in time, but rather a critical last step in a long chain of anti-Asian sentiment and policy.

“There was a longstanding reservoir of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian prejudice and racism that existed in America, kind of like kindling before a fire,” speaking from Chicago by phone. “If Pearl Harbor was the match that lit the flame, there was over fifty years of kindling that had been developed in American society in terms of fear, antipathy, and hatred of Japanese- and other Asian-Americans.”

The exhibit was developed by Alphawood Gallery, in partnership with JASC, the Chicago Japanese Historical Society, and other community advocacy organizations. Based largely on the book Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II by photo historians Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, Yokota said that the curatorial committee had a mere three months to fully plan the exhibit.

“It was hectic,” said Yokota. “But we were eventually able to kind of get down to the most vitally important objects and photographs to be able to tell this story.”

According to Staci Boris, Associate Director of Exhibitions for the Alphawood Gallery, another key to the exhibition was a broader perspective that could more accurately express what the relocation camps were like day-to-day, via artists like Miné Okubo, who, during her imprisonment, created a series of illustrations depicting her life in the camps. Okubo’s drawings, which were collected and published as Citizen 13660, depict the camps’ often poor sanitary conditions.

“The [War Relocation Authority] photographs had parameters. They weren’t allowed to document barbed wire, or guard towers, or things like that,” said Boris. “The goal of the photographs was to show the humane treatment of Japanese Americans. Miné Okubo was much more blunt in her descriptions about the conditions and about the terror and difficulties [and] the tragedy of the whole situation.”

Susan Carlson, Assistant Curator at ICP, said via phone that she wanted to tell the story of the incarceration by examining it through a contemporary lens.

“[The curatorial committee was] seeing resonance with contemporary political issues, including the Muslim ban, travel ban, DACA, and other immigration issues that were seeming increasingly relevant,” said Carlson. “The first day we were open being in the galleries I think people were naturally wanting to talk about current events.”

Attendees often cited the realistic portrait of the incarceration as a highlight of the exhibit.

“The details that the photos let us peak [sic] into were important, emotional and the experience will be everlasting,” said Erika McWhinnie, a Denver-based designer, in an email.

Brandon Ascari, a graduate student at New Jersey City University, said the exhibit should give everyone pause.

“I think anyone who really takes the time to look at this will say, just, it’s embarrassing honestly, that we let something like this happen,” he said, sitting in ICP’s café-lobby after viewing the installation.

This contemplative response is part this exhibits’ founding principle; the Alphawood Foundation, which funds the gallery where “Then They Came For Me” first appeared, “supports organizations that work for a humane and equitable society,” according to Boris. She also says that more than mere photos, the exhibit also promotes public awareness of immigration issues and government overreach in individual communities.

“Ideally you have faith in your government that they’re going to do the right thing and treat their citizens the right way and uphold their civil liberties and constitutional protections,” said Boris. “When you see such an abuse of power, and you see the country generally behind it, it’s scary. It’s a real cautionary tale.”

Even the exhibition’s title, borrowed from Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about the advancing tide of Nazi oppression, emerged as a way to prompt the audience to consider the need for communities to recognize past mistakes and prevent future ones, according to Boris.

“It’s a call to action, basically, to look around, and if you see injustice, and if you see unjust policies that affect your neighbor, are you going to stand up for them?” said Boris.

Still, says Yokota, this exhibit is only the beginning of a long and complex dialogue for many.

“We’re still in that process of trying to let people know that this happened,” said Yokota. “We are still struggling against forgetting.”

 

Then They Came For Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II” is on display at the International Center of Photography, 250 Bowery, through May 6th.  icp.org

Update – Feb. 6, 2018, 3:11pm: This article initially referred at times to the “internment” of Japanese Americans. However, according to more recent literature on the subject, only non-citizens can be interned. The article has been updated to use “imprisonment” or “incarceration” as this more accurately reflects the circumstances presented.

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