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Why the US photographed its own WWII concentration camps

Dorothea Lange’s photos of the incarceration of Japanese Americans went largely unseen for decades.

Coleman Lowndes is a lead producer who has covered history, culture, and photography since joining the Vox video team in 2017.

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 — two months after Japan’s bombing of the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor. It empowered the US army to designate strategic “military areas” from which any and all people deemed a threat could be forcibly removed. This began a process of placing 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II.

To control the narrative around the removal, the government created a new department, the War Relocation Authority, and hired photographers to document the process. One of those photographers was Dorothea Lange, who had become famous during the 1930s for her Great Depression photographs for the Farm Security Administration.

Her images featured Japanese American people in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to their incarceration in the camps, and captured expressions of dignity, resolve, and fear.

Shizuko Ina standing in line to register her family for “evacuation,” April 1942.
Dorothea Lange/US National Archives

Most of Lange’s candid photos of the removal process weren’t approved for publication by the War Relocation Authority and were “impounded” for the duration of the war. They weren’t seen widely until 1972, when her former assistant pulled them from the National Archives for a museum exhibit about the incarceration of Japanese Americans, called “Executive Order 9066.”

The photos became part of a redress movement for Japanese Americans in the 1970s and ’80s, which ultimately resulted in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a bill that approved reparations for survivors of the camps.

Further reading:

Darkroom is a history and photography series that anchors each episode around a single image. Analyzing what the photo shows (or doesn’t show) provides context that helps unravel a wider story. Watch previous episodes here.

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