Art as an Alternative Archive

Photography is an important aspect of visual culture, a tool for shaping public memory, storytelling, and an agent of surveillance. In In Sight of America, Peter Quartermine wrote that “Photography is no mere handmaid of empire, but a shaping dimension of it.” In fact, the development of the modern camera and darkroom technology resulted from the United States’ desire to monitor and record the increasing number of Asian immigrants in the late nineteenth century after the Page Act of 1875 and Geary Act of 1892. Thus, photography operates as a tool of the state and creates a singular “official” history that typically leaves no room for counternarratives from those photographed to speak for themselves.

Furthermore, what substance does memory draw from in circumstances that prohibit photography? When vernacular (family or personal) photography is banned, how can public memory operate and what can be remembered?

This archive explores the importance of including art as a part of photographic archives, especially in the case of Japanese-American internment during World War II, when access to cameras, film, or any kind of recording device that could be used for subversive means against the US was prohibited inside the “relocation centers” where approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced into after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Furthermore, this archive proposes art as an alternative record of Japanese internment by comparing “official” state-sponsored photography, US nationalist propaganda, and vernacular art and photography created in the face of limited resources.

Manzanar Dust Storm (Dorothea Lange/Courtesy The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley)

Hand-carved wood and paint depiction of Heart Mountain by Anonymous (A More Perfect Union, Courtesy of Lucy Yasuhiro)







What happens when photography is banned? In wartime, in internment, human fortitude and resourcefulness come out. Japanese internees survived and made due with what little they had while “liv[ing] the shock, humiliation, loss, misery, sorrows and tears” of forced relocation and imprisonment within “resettlement camps” (Miné Okubo, personal statement, February 19, 1993, box 30, folder 13, Miné Okubo Collection, RCC). To capture their experiences, internees made due with what they had and recorded life in the camps through vernacular photography and visual art to tell their side of the story. While the state-sponsored photographers of Japanese internment, such as Dorthea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Jack Frost, captured one side of history, crafting the “official” state narrative of Japanese internment, interned artists such as Toyo Miyatake, Frank Sugimoto, and Miné Okubo captured life inside the camps with whatever means they could find. 

Although distinct camps, Manzanar located in California and Heart Mountain located in northwestern Wyoming, both of these images convey the uniformity and daunting, hostile, mountainous environments of the internment camps. The locations of the Japanese internment camps of World War II were specifically chosen for their intimidating and inhospitable geography and climates including humid swamps, snake-ridden plains, and scorching dusty deserts. In Lange’s state-sponsored photograph of a dust storm at Manzanar, the American flag is centered among blocks of barracks disappearing into the horizon, framed by a mountain peak. Strikingly similar, a hand-carved piece of scrap wood, painted with care by an anonymous internee at Heart Mountain internment camp depicts a similar scene that reflects the empty streets between barrack blocks.

How successful are these images at portraying what life in the internment camps were like? How truthful are these images? In visual culture, positive space is equally as important as negative space. Therefore, the relationship and balance between light and dark, absence and presence, seen and erased are all important. These two images, “official” and vernacular, focus on the setting of the camps; Japanese bodies are noticeably absent in both images. This erasure of Japanese bodies is reminiscent of A.J. Russell’s photograph of the golden “Last Spike” at Promontory Point, Utah, which celebrated the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad without any of the thousand Chinese immigrant laborer bodies present in the frame. In these two images, the erasure of Japanese internee bodies perpetuates the voyeuristic gaze of the nation in crafting an official narrative that minimizes the violence done to Japanese bodies.

This violence was carried out not only physically in combat, but through the toxic “Yellow Peril” and “Tokio Boy” propaganda of World War II.

“Far from neutral ground, the drawn medium was itself the site of dueling propaganda during the Pacific War.” – Christine Hong (Citizen 13600, xvi)

Propaganda, although hand-rendered rather than photographed, operated as nationally-sponsored discriminatory visual culture in the same way as the Lange or Ansel Adams photographs do. These images in place of photographs contribute to a nationalist discourse on the US nation state, and racist tropes that demarcate the unbelonging of interned Japanese issei and nissei (first- and second-generation Japanese Americans, respectively) in mainstream, free, American life. Linda Gordon writes, that the wartime “construction of Japanese Americans as an internal enemy was itself partly a visual process” achieved through propaganda (“Dorthea Lange Photographs the Japanese American Internment,” Impounded: Dorthea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment, ed. Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 37.). The effect of these propaganda on the American public was to encourage a dehumanizing public perception of Japanese peoples, and did not distinguish Japanese from Japanese Americans. This lack of precision grouped all Japanese people as public enemies. Infuriatingly, approximately two thirds of the 110,000 Japanese Americans “resettled” in internment camps were US citizens (Okubo, Citizen 13660, 16). Neither their nation of birth or citizenship protected Japanese US citizens, who still had the face of the public enemy, popularized by tropes such as the Tokio Kid and subhuman rat-like caricatures of Japanese with squinty eyes, big ears, and buck teeth. The dehumanizing spectacle of WWII propaganda further created a segregationist “us” versus “them” attitude that assisted with mainstream hegemonic consensus that interning Japanese Americans and suspending due process and rights to fair trial. Indeed, US-generated propaganda of the time generated internal tension, as Japanese American subjects were “neither assuredly inside nor wholly outside  the bounds of the imagined community of the United States,” and “were submitted to a national security calculus, stripped of their rights to due process and effectively deemed by wartime authorities to be disloyal until proven loyal” (Christine Hong, Citizen 13660 Introduction, VIII).

“Americanization classes were organized and were held every night for the Issei.” Mine Okubo

Dorthea Lange








The Americanization classes Dorthea Lange photographed of interned children pledging allegiance to the US flag (left) and Miné Okubo’s “graphite photograph” of interned Issei adults in their nightly Americanization class (right) shows the range of distrust for all Japanese faces harbored by the wartime rhetoric and racist state-generated propaganda. While the first photo shows a cluster of young children, who are usually imagined as innocents and circumstantial victims, in this Lange image they are rendered “disloyal until proven loyal.” All Japanese Americans, including children born in the US and citizens by naturalization laws, were viewed as suspect citizens and perpetual foreigners, whose Japanese ancestry made them traitors and loyal to the Japanese emperor. Meanwhile, the Okubo image depicts issei, first-generation Japanese American adults, who were not US citizens or born in the US, being instructed in how to be American. Pledging allegiance to the US for issei meant becoming stateless beings, and unbelonging everywhere, which placed the issei adults in a predicament and caused tension between generations inside the camps. Both nissei children and issei adults were forcibly interned and placed in Americanization classes; the vernacular image argues that both should be considered as innocent, circumstantial victims of war. These images raise the question: how does one perform loyalty or belonging? Which image can be considered more truthful, more staged, or more insulting?  

“Cameras and photographs were not permitted in the camps, so I recorded everything in sketches, drawings, and paintings.”  -Miné Okubo (Citizen 13600)

The Japanese American internee experience can be rehumanized by focusing on vernacular photography and art produced within the confines of camp life. Self-proclaimed “observer and reporter” of internment, Miné Okubo, depicted the hardships of life interned at Tanforan Assembly Center and Topaz War Relocation Center, while also providing a glimpse into the intimate and sometimes humorous internment that official state photographers had no access to. From growing “victory plots” and gardens, to the first high school graduation within the camps, to the lack of privacy in bathrooms and barracks, and limited choices in fashion, Okubo’s rendering of internment rehumanizes the experience of Japanese Americans from her own perspective as the character “Okubo” in Citizen 13660. Okubo’s work, which she called her “documentary sketches of camp life,” (re)present Japanese internment in visual art unbridled by technological limitations and access (206). The cumulative work, Citizen 13660 serves as Okubo’s testimony of her experience as an internee, and carves out her place in this American history. Citizen 13660 is an experience the reader is brought into, a voyeuristic gaze similar to that of viewing Lange’s or Adams’ photographs. Ingeniously, by placing herself in each of her illustrations (with varying expressions to represent her politics and opinions), Okubo “convey’s a double-sided message: an authenticating, testimonial “I saw it” on the other hand, and an ideologically universalizing “this could be you” on the other” (Christine Hong, Citizen 13660, xvii). Okubo’s sketches were produced in camp, and were therefore potentially censored; however, her captions and the small details in her images show that she did not want to hide her politics and opinions about interned life.

“Art and hobby shows were of great interest. The residents exhibited vases and desk sets of wood, toys, stuffed animals and dolls, garments and knitted ware, carvings of stone and wood, finger rings of cellophane or fashioned from toothbrush handles, peach seeds or beads, tools made of scrap iron, and beautiful hats made of citrus-fruit wrappings woven with potato-sack strings. Ingenious use was made of everything that could be found in the center.” Miné Okubo (Citizen 13660, 169)

Internment stretched on for Japanese Americans, and in order to manage life within the camps, many turned to hobbies and craft as a form of normalizing a very abnormal situation. Some of the vernacular art of talented artists such as Okubo, as well as creative Japanese Americans, has been preserved and serve as a glimpse into their reality of camp life. Some created paintings with what materials they could find in the camps, some carved wood, some (like Toyo Miyatake) built secret cameras out of scrap materials and took photographs unlike any Lange or Adams could ever take. These images speak to the power of vernacular imagery as an alternative archive, and the fortitude of Japanese Americans interned while making “home” in internment.