Moving Images

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Jasmine Alinder. Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 2009. pp. xvi, 207. ISBN 9780252033988

Summary

Alinder examines the complex and often contradictory photographic narratives of the Japanese American incarceration experience during World War II. She uses the word incarceration to describe the federal government's actions so as to avoid the more euphemistic tendencies of "internment" or "relocation," which may suggest a legal action rather than the "wartime convention governed by law" (8). The mission of the images, according to the War Relocation Agency (WRA), was to depict Japanese Americans as loyal citizens while allowing for their incarceration and loss of civil rights. Alinder argues that "images were integral to the incarceration process from its beginning and shaped the historical events that they purported to disclose," and she supports this argument with extensive analysis of the kinds of images taken, the discussion around them, and the varying ways in which the images were used (with appropriate captioning) or suppressed.

Alinder's inquiry is driven by the question of why images of Japanese American incarceration have not been included in the canon of iconic war imagery. She argues that this stems from how incarceration photographs disrupt the heroic narrative of American war efforts: the horror of Holocaust images shows what America strove to overcome, soldier photographs show physical sacrifice, and homefront images reveal the patriotic sacrifice of the American people. Moving Images first three chapters focus on different sets of incarceration photographs taken at Manzanar Camp in California by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Toyo Miyatake. Each photographer highlights different perspectives: Lange's images were commissioned and controlled by the WRA, Adams' visit became his book Born Free and Equal, and Miyatake's embodied an incarcerated person's view. Chapter Four examines postwar displays of incarceration images in several museums, and how those exhibits reinforced agitation for reparations. The final chapter covers two contemporary Japanese American photographers' projects to render the incarceration sites and experience for a new generation.

Commentary

Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

Alinder frames her study around the ways that the Japanese American incarceration experience has not been recognized as central to the imagery of WWII in the same ways that images from the Holocaust or of valiant soldiers have. Her disgust with the incarceration of Japanese Americans and their loss of citizenship rights is prevalent throughout the book, and comes through most clearly in a discussion in the introduction over the uses and implications of the two common words associated with these actions&emdash;internment and relocation&emdash;and how these terms helped sanitize the experience. According to Alinder this carried over to understanding the images: the Holocaust photographs "stress the extraordinary nature of the extermination camp" whereas "Japanese American incarceration photographs seem to portray the concentration camps as somehow normal" (15).

Chapter Three on Miyatake's photographs of incarceration is the strongest. It ties together an extended visual analysis of several of Miyatake's images like "Boys Behind Barbed Wire" with discussions of representation and citizenship. She argues that "taking away the right to photographic representation was tied to the deprivation of other citizenship rights, even if there is not a specific right to photograph in the Constitution" (101). Images like "Boys Behind Barbed Wire," which was actually taken of boys on the outside of the fence looking into the camp, asserted the individuality of Japanese Americans at a time when political rhetoric and photographers like Ansel Adams tried to cast Japanese Americans as either loyal citizens or a vicious enemy.

While Alinder's intentions are clear, there are distinct limitations to her study. She frames this book as an examination of the imagery of Japanese American incarceration, but Manzanar is presented as representative of all of the camps and all of the experiences. Similarly, Lange's and Adams' careers were extraordinary, as was Miyatake's career and experience. Also, the dissemination of many of this images was sparse: Lange's images didn't reach a broader audience like her FSA photographs did until long after the war, and neither did Adams' book Born Free and Equal. Here Alinder misses an opportunity to explore the tensions between photographers (and other visual artists) and those who captioned and censored their images&emdash;an intersection similarly untreated by Roeder in The Censored War. Neither Lange or Adams needed the income from taking photographs of Manzanar, so the question arises over if the kinds of freedoms they took with their images, Lange's embedded criticism of incarceration and Adams' fixation on loyal Japanese American faces, were similar to photographs taken at Heart Mountain or other camps.

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