The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If America fails its people again, what will the catastrophe look like?

An image by photographer Dorothea Lange, taken in San Francisco in 1942, on view at International Center of Photography's "Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II" exhibit. (National Archives and Records Administration)

NEW YORK — If Congress and the courts ultimately fail to protect the residency status of DACA recipients — young people known as “dreamers” who were brought to this country before they were old enough to have a say in the matter — what will their expulsion look like? Will there be videos of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in tactical armor raiding high schools and college classrooms, rounding up kids at churches, clubs and cafes, and yanking them out of suburban tract homes at gunpoint? Will we see them herded into detention centers and forced onto chartered flights to countries they never knew and don’t remember?

The hypothetical videos and photographs that emerge from this looming civic crisis will probably look a lot different from what is on view in “Then They Came for Me,” an exhibition about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, at the International Center of Photography. Made by some of this country’s greatest photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, these images have a curious calm to them, a surface beauty, a quiet humanity. They are expertly staged black-and-white studies of family and community, patriotism and the persistence of dignity in the face of arbitrary and dehumanizing injustice.

Most of these photographs were made by photographers working for the U.S. government’s War Relocation Authority, which perpetrated the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They exist only because of a quirk in the American moral conscience, an endearing and utterly maddening belief that we can do no wrong. Just as it had done during the years of the New Deal, the government made a carefully selective record of its actions, commissioning what was effectively propaganda, though most of the images didn’t circulate during the war years.

Although the WRA exercised strict control over the photographers it hired, setting limits on what they could photograph and impounding images it deemed improper, the results were ambiguous and revealing. Lange, who had produced one of the most moving images of the 20th century when she photographed a haggard migrant woman with two suffering children, wasn’t capable of making anodyne public-relations imagery. And she was deeply grieved by what she saw during the few months she worked for the WRA in the spring of 1942.

“The stress of it was that she thought that we were entering a period of fascism, and she thought that she was viewing the end of democracy as we know it,” her assistant Christina Gardner recalled later. The exhibition at the ICP, paired with another that explores the legality and ethics of the U.S. government’s global war on terrorism, is clearly intended to underscore the disturbing historical affinities between our current moment and the events that so profoundly disturbed Lange more than 75 years ago.

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What Lange witnessed was heartbreaking. On April 18, 1942, she photographed the Shibuya family in front of their house in Mountain View, Calif., with its crisp lawn, painted shutters and white-columned porch. The extended family includes a boy in overalls, young men in spectacles, girls in dresses and slacks, and a dog lying at their feet, nuzzling a hand and knee. It is an image of domestic prosperity and happiness, almost to the point of cliche, and yet shortly after it was made, the family was forced out of its home, sent to a temporary incarceration facility before being deported to the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, where the family matriarch, Tora Shibuya, died a year later. After they were released, they had to build from scratch the flower farming operation they left behind because of the internment.

Working rapidly and in near constant motion during the early months of round up, Lange captured both the normality of Japanese American life and the misery of its disruption, stressing images like the American flag, children with their hands to their hearts and groups of neatly dressed people gathered for community engagements. Within weeks, she and another WRA photographer, Clem Albers, began documenting the rupture itself, Japanese businessmen desperately selling what they could of their stores and merchandise and an exhausted man sitting alone in the middle of the farm he is about to lose. One poignant Lange photograph shows a neatly typed letter, thanking the customers of a Japanese American owned dry goods store: “We take this opportunity of expressing to each of you our heartfelt appreciation and ‘thank you’ for your patronage and for the many courtesies and opportunities extended to us in the past.”

It isn’t easy to compare moral crises across the decades. Some of those interned in 1942 were Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants who had been prevented by law from attaining U.S. citizenship, while many others were Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans who were fully U.S. citizens. The dreamers who are in peril of expulsion fall somewhere in between, culturally and emotionally fully American, like the Nisei, but stuck in a legal limbo not of their making, like the Isei.

There are similarities in the cultural atmosphere, as well. The internment of Japanese Americans wasn’t prompted just by war fears and hysteria; it was preceded by decades of prejudice and racism. The ground was prepared for their mistreatment by demagoguery. The internment, as many U.S. leaders confessed even at the time, served no rational purpose, and in fact damaged American interests and the economy, with impacts on agriculture and business, and high costs for sustaining a formerly productive population as prisoners. Like the removal of Native Americans from their homelands in the 19th century, the internment of Japanese Americans required financial investment, organizational skills, logistical efforts and bureaucratic oversight. The removal of some 800,000 dreamers who filed for DACA protections, and the millions more who haven’t, will similarly require enormous public resources and expenditure.

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If this comes to pass, will our government document the events as it did the Japanese internment? To get a sense of what this may look like, we can turn to videos and images already being produced by ICE, especially those chronicling its stepped up enforcement campaign against undocumented people with criminal records (often misdemeanors). These are easily found on the ICE website and circulated widely on social media.

These do indeed look very different from what the WRA produced some 75 years ago. The WRA photographers were discouraged from emphasizing the military or police aspects of the internment, including guard towers and fences. ICE videos today tend to militarize the drama, with officers dressing for the raid, pulling on body armor, advancing in unmarked cars and swarming a house or workplace. Faces are blurred, both those of government agents and those being detained.

This precludes the direct appeal to the viewer made by the images seen in this exhibition. The blurring of faces, perhaps justified as necessary for the safety of the agents and the privacy of the person arrested, in fact serves a dual government purpose. It prevents the agents from being implicated in the morality of their action, and it dehumanizes the detainee, placing them not in the category of immigrant, but criminal (though many people without criminal records are now being swept up in “collateral” captures).

Did Lange, and later Ansel Adams, invade the privacy of the people they photographed in the 1940s? Did they abet the government by making these images? Adams was chastised from both the right and the left for the images he made at Manzanar, a concentration camp in the Owens Valley of California. Some felt his photographs humanized the enemy, while others felt he aided the government’s effort to put a happy face on the internment. But his work, and that of Lange and Albers, emphasized the persistence of community and American-ness among Japanese Americans, a powerfully different point of view than the police-style raids on foreign and isolated individuals seen in today’s government videos.

After his retirement as chief justice of the United States, Earl Warren, who had been one of the strongest advocates of the Japanese internment, wrote: “I have since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens.” Others involved felt the same way, and in 1988 the United States offered a formal apology for the internment of some 120,000 people.

If the dreamers are expelled, there will be many times that number of victims. It will happen in an age that has given up as quaint the notion that America is fundamentally good and can never do wrong. America First suggests a different self understanding: Our country is fundamentally aggrieved and need not endeavor to do right. The visual record we make of the coming cruelty must necessarily be different, too. To acknowledge the dreamers as Americans, to allow them to appeal to us as people, to capture the normalcy of their lives, would create a record too galling to the conscience. The Dorothea Lange of this tragedy will have to emerge from among the dreamers themselves, for our government would never tolerate someone with her eye and humanity working on its behalf.


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