How do you photograph something that happened four generations ago?
By Stephen Wolgast
For Paul Kitagaki Jr., a third-generation Japanese American, the story is personal. His parents and grandparents were among the 110,000 Japanese Americans rounded up beginning in 1942, taken from their homes and relocated hundreds of miles away.
Today we usually refer to them — as the government did during World War II — as internment camps. More recent, internment camps are referred to as incarceration centers, a far more accurate description for the people who lived there because the experience was nothing like camping.
The wooden barracks where they spent years away from home were barely furnished. The grounds were surrounded by tall fences topped with barbed wire. And the locations were chosen for their isolation.
One of Kitagaki’s subjects describes life in one of the camps devastatingly. Donna Nakashima’s mother and grandmother were housed at
Tule Lake Segregation Center in Newell, California. “Even though they call it internment camp, my mother corrected me and said, ‘No. It was a concentration camp.’”
Most of the internment camps were in California and states near the Pacific Ocean. But three camps were east of the Rocky Mountains: one near Granada, Colorado, just 15 barren miles from the Kansas border; and one each near Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas, not far from the Mississippi River.
Few adults who were detained in the centers are still living. The camps, to use the official term, no longer survive.
The past is gone.
How to photograph it when it’s only a memory?
Ask the survivors about their memories, and watch their reactions for the right moment. That’s the first step, but Kitagaki took another.
He searched through photographs in the National Archives, some of which were taken by Farm Security Administration photographers, and came across pictures of Japanese in the process of being relocated and at the camp. Few had any captions identifying the people, but the photos were labeled by who took them and include Carl Mydans and Ansel Adams.
Another photographer of the internment process was Dorothea Lange, who Kitagaki discovered had photographed his grandparents in Oakland, California, as they waited to board the bus that would take them to their wartime incarceration.
The archive photos show Japanese American business owners posing at their shops and farmers working their fields. Children recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Then they wave from the window of a train as they are being taken to a destination neither they nor their parents know.
Kitagaki uses the archival photos as inspiration. To explain the weight of the past on the present, he borrows from those old portraits and refers to them in his own images.
With a Linhof Technika, a large-format camera he chose because it was similar to the type used in the 1940s, and using black and white film, Kitagaki photographed 61 survivors showing us how they feel about what happened to them so long ago.
Some of the faces are defiant, as with the daughter of a grocery store owner and her cousins, who stand proudly in front of the Oakland building that housed the family business before the war. In the archive photo, a banner above the windows reads, “I Am an American.” In the contemporary photo, a sign advertises a bank.