"Suffering Under a Great Injustice": Ansel Adams's Photographs of
Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar
Life at Manzanar
The first Japanese Americans to be evacuated from the military zones were sent from Los Angeles to the Manzanar relocation center in northeastern California. Over the next 18 months, about 120,000 more Japanese Americans were evacuated to ten relocation centers in Califonia, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas.
The entire collection provides a window into life at Manzanar, and by extension provides a look at the experience of most Japanese-American evacuees. Adams's photographs and text depict the place, people, and activities of Manzanar, and provide insight into the thoughts and feelings of its residents. Browse the collection's Subject Index and the pages of Born Free and Equal for a wealth of information.
The blocks are widely spaced, with frequent large firebreak areas in which victory gardens, pleasure parks, playing fields, and concert areas, have been developed. In addition there are schools, warehouses, shops, canteens, offices, meeting halls, libraries, churches, a museum, a large and completely equipped hospital, and a recently completed auditorium. An area is devoted to the general administrative offices and the residences of the Caucasian personnel. To the north and south of the Center are extensive farm areas, and the chicken, hog, and cattle enterprises.
- How would you characterize the physical appearance of Manzanar?
- What was the layout of the town like? What were the buildings and homes like?
- Do you agree with Adams that the landscape surrounding Manzanar symbolizes "the immensity and opportunity of America" ?
- How else might the residents of Manzanar have felt about this landscape of mountains and desert?
- The caption of one photograph reads, "The spirit of Manzanar is fleeting and impermanent." Does Manzanar strike you as a temporary or permanent settlement?
- What aspects of it were temporary and what aspects were permanent?
Adams depicts the people of Manzanar in individual and group portraits found by searching on family or portrait. He also devotes a section of Born Free and Equal to "The People". Browse the book for a series of portraits with brief descriptions of their subjects, such as Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi:
Born in Long Beach, California, and subsequently living in Los Angeles and Redondo Beach, she completed two years at Los Angeles City College majoring in pre-nursing, followed by nurse-training at the Los Angeles General Hospital. Her ambition is to become a proficient public health nurse. She is interested chiefly in human beings; she also enjoys bridge, tennis, horseback riding and reading. She is realistic and says in regard to her pre-war life, "Only after evacuation have I come to realize the false sense of security I enjoyed prior to the war."
- What kinds of people did Adams photograph? What are their ages, backgrounds, and occupations?
- Do the clothing and hair styles of Manzanar residents appear to be more Japanese or American?
- What kind of information does Adams share about his subjects in Born Free and Equal? What kind of "portrait" does Adams create with this information and why do you think he does this?
- Can Adams's portraits be used to understand how the people of Manzanar felt about being there? Why or why not?
- Why do you think that Adams decided to take so many portraits at Manzanar?
Searching on a variety of terms or browsing the Subject Index provides countless examples of the activities of daily life at Manzanar. Search on game, choir, museum, and park for images of recreation at Manzanar. Search on church, school, and class for images reflecting religion and education. Search on electrician, truck driver, dressmaker, nurse, farmer, agriculture, and store for images of Manzanar residents at work. Browse Adams's 57 page section on "The People" for more photographs and descriptions of recreation, religion, education, and work at Manzanar.
- To what extent was Manzanar a fully developed town?
- In what ways was Manzanar different from other towns?
- In what ways does the unique position of the Japanese-American evacuees seem to have affected the way they developed their town and their lifestyles?
- What does the development of Manzanar suggest about its residents and their attitudes about their situation?
Adams discusses the quality of life for the residents of Manzanar. He quotes Carey McWilliams, author of "What About Our Japanese-Americans?" who observed that "living in a center is, at best, an extremely irritating experience. Overcrowding is universal; there is no privacy whatever, and people wait in line to eat, to wash, to be interviewed…most of the evacuees… worry incessantly about their future." Adams, on the other hand, takes an admittedly more positive view. For example, after explaining how many newlyweds are required to share a room with their parents, he remarks that "Communal life undoubtedly has bolstered morale."
- What do you think it was like to live at Manzanar?
- How might your evacuation from your home have affected your attitudes?
- How would the temporary nature of the camp at Manzanar and the uncertainty of your future have affected the way you felt and lived?
- How would you characterize the way Japanese-American evacuees dealt with being incarcerated? How else could they have responded to this treatment?
- Why do you think they responded the way they did?
- What is the difference between McWilliams's assessment of life at Manzanar and Adams's view of it? Which viewpoint is most realistic? Which is most productive?
- How does their language express their viewpoints? What words have they chosen to depict Manzanar in the ways that they see it?