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‘Colors of Confinement’: Japanese internment camp photographs by Bill Manbo

When Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens were torn from their daily lives and herded into internment camps with guard towers during World War II, they were told to only bring what they could carry. But they were also told what they could not carry. Among items initially banned by the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command were bombs, ammunition, implements of war, codes or ciphers, explosives and the humble camera.

If anything, this is a testament to the incredible power of photography. Even one frame can change the tide of public opinion because photography has the power to add layers to our understanding of how events transpired and how people were affected.

The ban on cameras by the Western Defense Command was lifted in the spring of 1943. At that time, Bill Manbo’s 35mm Zeiss Contax became an outlet as well as a way of writing his family’s story at a time when even Japanese descendants born on American soil had their loyalty questioned.

When University of North Carolina professor Eric L. Muller saw Manbo’s photos of life as an internee, he was floored. Manbo was forced with his family, in-laws and two-year-old son, Billy, into the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, which opened 70 years ago this month. There in Park County, Wyo., Manbo made a stunning set of Kodachromes of internee life, family life and unabashed multiculturalism. Muller edited the series into the book, “Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II” (University of North Carolina Press and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University).

The most striking thing about the Kodachromes is how the deep blues and blondes brighten the harsh situation. Most known photography of the internment camps is black-and-white. In fact, Kodachrome had only been introduced seven years earlier. Muller argues that color brings a “greater emotional proximity,” whereas black-and-white photos feel like relics.

The unusual boldness of color complements the fact that the content of the photos swerves away from the deathly grim or heartily jingoist tone of other internment-era photography. Many of the photos show the Manbos and other families attempting to carry on a “normal” life. Muller notes that the viewer should keep in mind that Bill Manbo, a mechanic before the war, approached photography the way an family photographer often does, which is to photograph the highlights and happy moments.

There are family outings, ice skating, baseball games and even little Billy’s mouth slathered in ice cream. But Manbo does not use the edges of the frame to cut out the reality of his family’s situation. Many of the photos are set against the rigid Wyoming mountains. There is even a smiling portrait of Billy where, instead of gripping an oversize fake crayon as in an elementary school portrait, he grips a length of barbed wire.

Another common thread in the photo series is an internal conversation about identity. What essentially led to the incarceration of harmless citizens was the underpinning failure to accept that the Japanese could retain elements of both cultures without being traitorous. Manbo heavily documented the beauty in cultural events, including Bon Odori, a traditional dance that is part of a summer festival, as well as sumo wrestling. On the other hand, Manbo dressed his son up in a soldier or aviator uniforms, and even scrawled “Manbeaux” on his family’s barrack, as if it were a French last name.

Muller notes in “Colors of Confinement” that in a loyalty questionnaire, both Manbo and his wife, Mary, showed how weary they were of questions of cultural identity. Bill answered a question about race with, “American?” while Mary answered with “Japanese. No fault of our own. Am very proud of my race.”

Although it is easy to write off the incarceration of the Japanese as part of the distant past, Muller equates what happened to the scapegoating of Muslims after the September 11 attacks and relates it to the motivation for the recent shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. “It reminds us of . . . how easy it is to confuse things like race and religion with national security threats,” he said. In fact, the Japanese American Citizens League was one of the first groups to reach out to offer support to the Muslim community after the 2001 terror attacks.

Despite the numerous parallels that scholars have drawn between the treatment of Muslims and Japanese internees, Muller ardently insists that America is not collectively reliving its past mistakes verbatim. “We remain subject to the same very human fears and prejudices that led us into that period,” he said. Still, he pointed out that since the internment occurred, Brown v. Board of Education was passed and civil rights underwent drastic transformation.

“Hopefully we’re on the opposite side of a wave of protection against these kinds of broad racial categorizing moves on the part of the government,” Muller said.

May-Ying Lam is a photo editor at The Washington Post.


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