"Suffering Under a Great Injustice": Ansel Adams's Photographs of
Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar
Arts & Humanities
When Adams was offered the opportunity to photograph the Manzanar War Relocation Center, he jumped at the chance to make a meaningful contribution to the war effort. The assignment also held a personal interest for him. One of his parents' long-time employees, Harry Oye, was a first-generation Japanese American in ill health when the U.S. entered World War II. Adams was angered when Mr. Oye was suddenly evacuated to a hospital far away in Missouri.
Adams photographed the Manzanar War Relocation Center, which was run by his friend and fellow Sierra Club member Ralph Merritt, in the fall of 1943. The following year, U.S. Camera published selected photographs and text by Adams in Born Free and Equal. The book was well received and made the bestseller list in the San Francisco Chronicle for March and April of 1945. Nevertheless, some felt that Adams's book hurt the war effort.
This book in no way attempts a sociological analysis of the people and their problem. It is addressed to the average American citizen, and is conceived on a human, emotional basis, accenting the realities of the individual and his environment rather than considering the loyal Japanese-Americans as an abstract, amorphous, minority group. This impersonal grouping, while essential to the factual study of racial and sociological problems, frequently submerges the individual, who is of greatest importance. Throughout this book I want the reader to feel he has been with me in Manzanar, has met some of the people, and has known the mood of the Center and its environment—thereby drawing his own conclusions—rather than impose upon him any doctrine or advocate any sociological action.
- What do you think Adams means when he writes in his foreword that the individual "is of greatest importance?"
- Do you think Adams is stating in his foreword that his documentation has no relevance to racial or sociological problems?
- Why do you think `Adams feels that it's important for the "average American citizen" to be introduced to the residents of Manzanar?
- Why was Adams interested in photographing Manzanar? What do you think he hoped to accomplish with his photographs? How successful do you think he was?
- Do you think Born Free and Equal advocates any kind of sociological action? If so, what?
- Why would some people have felt that the book hurt the war effort?
- Do you think Born Free and Equal had a sociological impact? What was its significance at the time? What is its significance now? What can we learn from it?
Adams implies that he took a relatively positive view of Manzanar. Perhaps for this reason, he agreed to not photograph guard towers, barbed wire, or the soldiers guarding the internees, in order to do the project. Other photographers who documented the evacuation of Japanese Americans, however, took a darker view of their subject, and their images and captions reflect it.
Hired by the War Relocation Agency, Dorothea Lange depicted social upheaval and bleak conditions in the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans at Manzanar. Russell Lee captured the harsh realities of evacuation in images such as those portraying armed guards. Lee’s photographs of the evacuation can be found in the collection, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Information about and photographs by Dorothea Lange are also available in this collection, though her photographs of the evacuation are not.
- Do you think the absence of photographs such as Lee's, showing the presence of armed guards, detracts from the quality of Adams's documentation?
- Do you think that Adams's agreement to not photograph certain things at Manzanar or his relationship with Ralph Merritt compromised his ability to make an accurate documentation of Manzanar?
- If a photographer is only allowed to document certain aspects of a subject, is the project worth doing?
- What are the pros and cons of proceeding with such a project?
- What could be the ramifications of publishilng such a project?