Photography in the History of Japanese-American Internment: Toyo Miyatake's Boys Behind Barbed WireSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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During the course of my research on photographs of Japanese-American internment, I have come across one image more frequently than any other. Reproduced in newspaper articles, museum exhibitions and government publications, the black and white photograph of three boys standing in desert brush behind a barbed wire fence has come to symbolize the injustice of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. It is a poignant image in part because it pictures the gap of power between defenseless youths and the extensive force mobilized to contain them: the threat of the barbed wire is amplified by the presence of a guard tower. I have since found that this initial irony precedes a host of other contextual ironies, which speak to the use of documentary photographs in the construction of history. An examination of the modes of photographic display reveals how the truth-telling function of documentary photography has been manipulated and exploited to tell versions of history which often elide complex experiences, and smooth over the contradictions of the past.
The photograph Boys Behind Barbed Wire was recently published in a San Francisco Chronicle article titled "Manzanar-Bittersweet Tourist Park." The title of the article connotes destinations like Disneyland, but these boys, unlike tourists, were not free to leave their "tourist park" environs. They, along with 120,000 other Japanese-Americans, two thirds of whom were American citizens, had been forced to evacuate their west coast homes in February of 1942 and move into one of ten concentration camps. The camps were located in remote and often inhospitable environments, as made evident in this photograph by the empty expanse of land beyond the guard tower and the brittle clusters of sage brush.
The newspaper's caption for the photograph reads, "A historical photo shows unidentified children during World War II at the Manzanar internment camp, which has opened up for tours." The by-line, given as "Associated Press," appears to be incorrect because the photographer was not an unnamed AP employee, but a former internee named Toyo Miyatake. In an interview, the photographer's son, Archie Miyatake, revealed that the newspaper had published the by-line inaccurately. This very much angered him, as it effectively erased his father's connection to the image. Although the caption suggests that the viewer is confronting an "historical photo," the misinformation compromises its historicity.
This small error foregrounds the tension between photography and history. Despite academic scholarship that analyzes documentary photographs in a critical manner, such images are often deployed by the popular media and displayed in museums as transparent windows onto historical time. They are treated as if they possessed a one-to-one correspondence with the photograph's referent, and are rarely considered to be historical products themselves. In this case, the newspaper reproduced the photograph as a visual marker of the internment. But listing the Associated Press as its creator erased the photographer's identity, thus divorcing the image from the particularities of its making, and encouraging viewers to make improper assumptions about the circumstances in which it was made.
The framing devices used by the newspaper to present this photograph rewrote the image's history. The article did not present the caption and by-line as contemporary interpretative frameworks, but as objective facts manufactured by the image itself. Such mistakes prevent viewers from thinking about this photograph in a critical, discursive fashion. They make it almost impossible to ask the questions that this image begs: how was it possible for an internee in a wartime concentration camp to make a photograph which so overtly criticizes the government? The answer to this question may lead to a deeper understanding of the often overlooked and complicated history of Japanese-American internment.
Until his internment, Toyo Miyatake owned a successful photography studio in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo neighborhood. A recent exhibition of Miyatake's photography at the Japanese-American Community and Cultural Center in Los Angeles demonstrated the photographer's gifted eye and mastery of photographic technique. In addition to his commissioned portraiture, Miyatake submitted art photographs to various salon competitions. Through his friendship with the well-known photographer Edward Weston, Miyatake was able to convince Weston to exhibit his work in the Japanese community.
In 1942, the Miyatake family was forced to move into a government concentration camp. Internees were strictly forbidden to bring cameras into the camps. Afraid that he would be accused of spying and separated from his family, Miyatake did not mention, even to his wife and children, his plans to smuggle a lens, film and a film holder into Manzanar. The photographer later told his son that he risked being caught because he felt that it was his responsibility to make a record of their experiences. In camp, Miyatake made a camera body from scraps of wood and began clandestinely recording camp life.
It was not long before he was caught. The fact that Manzanar had just endured a tumultuous few months may have saved Miyatake from accusations of spying and removal to a higher security camp. During the first year of Japanese-American incarceration, frequent conflicts arose between various factions of internees and camp administrators. In December of 1942 a riot broke out in Manzanar, during which military police killed two internees and injured at least ten others. Two months later, the War Relocation Authority began to administer a highly controversial leave-clearance questionnaire to all internees over the age of seventeen. Two items on the questionnaire asked whether one would serve in the United States military, and whether one would renounce all loyalty to the Japanese Emperor, and swear allegiance to the United States. These questions tore at the seam of Japanese-American identity: Issei (first generation Japanese-Americans) had been legally barred from becoming American citizens, so asking them to forswear allegiance to Japan left them without a country; Nisei (second generation), who were United States citizens by birth, took offense that their loyalty was questioned, and that their combat designation had been changed to IVC (enemy alien). The military used these two trick questions to isolate anyone expressing opposition to his/her incarceration. Those who answered no to both questions were referred to as "no-no boys": they were branded as disloyal and removed to a higher security concentration camp in Tule Lake, CA.
After the riot and the removal of the "no-no boys," Ralph Merritt, the director of Manzanar, desired peace, which he attempted to achieve through a paternalistic system of camp government. Merritt allowed internees to set up cooperative businesses, including a photography studio for Miyatake, who had argued that it was necessary to record the graduations, births, weddings, and daily life of Manzanar's substantial population (it was the largest town between Los Angeles and Reno). By marking these passages of time with the camera in the same way that had been done before internment, one could lend some semblance of normality to camp life. Despite the injustice of incarceration, Manzanar high school, for example, produced a yearbook illustrated with individual student portraits, as well as photographs of school plays and other activities. From page to page the yearbook looks much like any other of its time, except that there are barracks in the background of group portraits, and the final image — chosen carefully by the editors — is of a guard tower and barbed wire fence. As one of the yearbook's staff members explained later, the editors purposely used photographs to both support and contradict the idea that theirs was a normal community.
Miyatake and his small staff were responsible for most of the yearbook photography. The initial condition which Merritt imposed on this work was that a white person had to click the shutter. Miyatake's appointed assistant went to Los Angeles to buy used photographic equipment, and the head of evacuee properties wrote a letter so that the photographer could get some of his own equipment out of storage. It appears that his assistants did not remain interested in their job for long: the first assistant quit after four to five months. Merritt then hired a string of camp administrators' wives to chaperone his studio.
Eventually, the Director gave Miyatake clearance to photograph without supervision. According to Archie Miyatake, no one came to inspect what his father was doing. He was able to carry his camera and tripod around the 550 acre grounds of Manzanar, and to take pictures without any overt strictures on his subject matter. Although Archie Miyatake did not know of any regulations placed on his father's photography, it is safe to assume that certain implicit parameters would have been understood. There is, for example, more than one reason why Miyatake would have posed children by the fence: not only do children connote innocence, but standing at the perimeter of the camp would have been less dangerous for youths than for grown men. Miyatake needed to photograph in an area that would not have terribly risky because he was working with a view camera and not a snapshot camera and so setting up the shot and making the exposure would have taken a substantial amount of time.
That more than one version of this image exists (in the alternate version only the boy on the right holds onto the fence) reinforces its constructed nature, which makes it all the more difficult to view the photograph as a transparent document. Miyatake was posing his subjects (in effect, his models) very consciously in an effort to achieve a composition that forcefully communicated the injustice of internment. He achieved this by positioning his lens sympathetically, at their level, and by maximizing the discrepancy between the boys' diminutive stature and the oppressive height of the guard tower, which he visually connected to the position of the boys through the recessional lines of the barbed wire.
The photograph of Boys Behind Barbed Wire is not a window onto the past, but a highly constructed image, whose conceit stems from the position of Miyatake's camera, on the opposite side of the fence from the boys. This suggests that either the photographer or the boys were actually standing outside the camp. According to Miyatake's son, the boys were actually standing on the outside of the fence while his father had set up his camera on a tripod inside the camp. Thus the boys are not looking wistfully out into the vast desert but in towards the camp-their facial expressions are produced more for the photographer's lens than by the promise of life outside the barbed wire. That the Miyatake photograph is highly staged, however, does not in any way detract from its efficacy as a symbol of the gross injustice of internment. On the contrary, the photograph complicates characterizations of internees as helpless victims as it points to strategies developed by internees to represent themselves.
In this arena of representation, the newspaper takes full advantage of the photograph's semantic dependence in order to invent the appearance of its semantic autonomy. The photograph is not recognized as a construction — a surface on which contested identities, memories and histories compete for meaning. Nor is Japanese-American identity conceptualized as complex, fluctuating, and conflicted. If viewers understood that they were seeing a photograph produced by an internee the very version of history that the newspaper presents would be altered. Japanese-Americans used photographs to develop a greater sense of community within the camps in the case of the yearbook, as well as to give a sense of the experience to future generations in the case of Miyatake image. Without the recovery of the photograph's history, however, viewers will remain unable to read social historical context and understand the photograph's original rhetorical functions.
When one is presented with a reproduction of a "historical" photograph such as Miyatake's Boys Behind Barbed Wire, the very first question that should be asked is under what circumstances was this image made. Because the camera is omnipresent, we take the existence of documentary photographs for granted. The camera has become disembodied, snapping up images that first become news and then history. Because the reproduction of these images greatly inflects understanding of the past, their manufacture, particularly with images of traumatic events, needs to be questioned. In the case of the Miyatake photograph, the framework that the newspaper provided eradicated the possibility that the photograph could serve as historical evidence, because it failed to acknowledge his role in the image's production. In this instance, history became a shallow version of the past, and the documentary photograph was the unwitting accessory.
Jasmine Alinder is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History, and a Hunting Family Graduate Student Fellow at the Institute for the Humanities.
There is an excellent body of scholarship that analyzes documentary photography in a critical manner. See John Tagg, Alan Sekula, Sally Stien, Maren Stange, et al...However, their projects to provide social histories for photographic documents have not significantly impacted the way that photographs are published in the mass media, displayed within museums or consumed by the public.
Diane Yotsuya Honda, ed. Our World: Manzanar, California (Logan, UT: Herff Jones Yearbook Company, 1998). This citation is for the reprinted yearbook of Manzanar High School which includes updates on the lives of the yearbook's editors.