Almost 80 years ago, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in a surprise assault that killed more than 2,400 people, wounded 1,000 others, sank or damaged 20 U.S. naval vessels and destroyed more than 300 aircraft. It was a devastating event.
The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt petitioned Congress to declare war on Japan. Unfortunately, that war would extend to hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry. It is a stain on our national conscience.
The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred Dec. 7, 1941. Two months later, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that led to the movement of more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans into 10 war relocation centers spread across seven states. It was the result of widespread panic that led people to believe that any person of Japanese descent in the United States could be a potential spy who could assist in a possible invasion.
Although this happened some 78 years ago, the cyclical nature of history, and recent events, has shown that actions like these can still happen. Fear of the “other” is a force that still grips certain groups, even globally.
Photographer Timothy Floyd’s eerily haunting pinhole images from the Minidoka War Relocation Center (previously known as Hunt Camp), in Idaho, are a timely reminder of that fear.
Floyd told In Sight that despite living in Idaho for 30 years, he had never been to Minidoka. But one day, he read that there was going to be a dedication for a new visitors’ center. So he went … then ended up making eight 300-mile round trips that resulted in this body of work.
The work has personal connections for Floyd. Growing up, his parents taught him about the camps and the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Floyd told In Sight that his father was haunted throughout his life by memories he had of taking part in bombing raids on Japanese cities during World War II, but “he never conflated the actions of the Japanese Empire with the Japanese Americans living in the United States. Although he rose to defend his country against aggression, he taught us that war is inhumane and the worst of all human behaviors.”
Here is the introductory essay Floyd wrote for “Minidoka, Fabric of the Land”:
Confinement became a voluntary, temporary way of life in early 2020. Americans of Japanese ethnicity were confined during World War II, but in a way that was very different. They were given one week’s notice — two at most — to get their affairs in order and gather the things that they could carry, for that was all that was allowed. They were stripped of their property, most possessions and their pets. But they could not be stripped of their dignity.
Older immigrants were Issei, their American-born children were Nisei and their children were Sansei. These were productive, law-abiding Americans, many of whom served in the Armed Forces, some of whom died while defending the country that incarcerated their families.
They were sent by rail or bus to live in horse stalls at holding stations where they spent weeks to months waiting for their permanent quarters. Camps were constructed in remote, desolate, harsh areas of the country. Barracks were built of green wood covered simply with tar paper without insulation. Cold wind blew through gaps in window casings and between slats. Six families were placed in each building, with each “apartment” consisting of only one room where stories were told, love was made, babies were born and the Issei passed on.
They had no privacy. Food was served communally. Laundry was washed communally. With no barriers in the latrines, elimination was done communally. Armed soldiers manned guard towers to prevent escape, the muzzles of their weapons pointed inward.
After the war they were released, often now homeless, their crime of ethnicity commuted. The government allowed veterans to homestead the land surrounding Minidoka, but not the men and women who had lived there and who had cultivated that land. Today, few Nisei remain.
Very few artifacts of these camps remain, either. Decomposing concrete foundations stand alongside remnants of mindfully constructed rock gardens. The buildings were auctioned off to homesteaders, other farmers and townspeople who repurposed them as barns, outbuildings and houses. Now, many are falling apart, like their surviving occupants. They are succumbing to time and elements, and have become nearly invisible while remaining in plain sight. The buildings are woven into the fabric of the land; they season the subconscious of the landscape’s invisible past. Life goes on, but skeletons remain.
The pinhole camera conveys a sense of the fading, imprecise memories of Nisei and Sansei, and of the country’s myopic unwillingness to clearly see its past sins. The way that these buildings – these instruments of confinement – have disappeared in plain sight is a metaphor, not only for their aged occupants, but for how the entire relocation project has disappeared from our national vision. My hope is that by bringing awareness to these remnants, these photographs will contribute to remembrance of the event. May this never happen again.
You can find out more about the project here.
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
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