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  • The Spaces of Human ConfinementManzanar Photography and Landscape Ideology
  • Thy Phu (bio)

I. "There Goes a Thing"

In his diary entry for April 30, 1942, Charles Kikuchi offers a personal response to the official documentation of his experiences as one of the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans ordered to evacuate the Pacific Coastal mainland, an area that had recently been declared a military zone under Executive Order 9066. "Oh, oh, there goes a 'thing' in slacks and she is taking pictures of that old Issei lady with a baby," he observes. "She says she is the official photographer, but I think she ought to leave these people alone."1 Passionately objecting to the invasive attentions of this photographer—a figure whom many critics speculate was likely Dorothea Lange—he punctures any humanitarian pretensions the official may have harbored. Protesting the indignity of the camera's scrutiny, Kikuchi implies that it does not merely document but also may even intensify the sufferings of Japanese Americans ordered to evacuate and relocate. Having lost their homes, only to be shunted off to processing stations and then to guarded camps, these so-called "enemy aliens" also had to endure the humiliation of having their losses laid bare for all to see. Reflecting privately in his diary, Kikuchi counters such official picture-taking with his decidedly unofficial journal-writing. Whether the camera could represent his perspective, never mind provide a nuanced counter-archive, was a different matter entirely. The sheer hostility of this entry serves as a clear acknowledgment of the [End Page 337] camera as a technology of surveillance, readily constructing, as Wendy Kozol has shown, the official reality of relocation.2

While photo-documentary, the process of official record-keeping, has increasingly become a focus of critical inquiry, it has long been important in the imaginary construction of nationhood. During the Second World War, U.S. photography played a pivotal role in symbolic battles waged overseas and at home. Abroad, a phalanx of photographers participated in the war effort by producing pictures for the purposes of propaganda and surveillance. As importantly, on the home front, photography functioned in complex and often contradictory ways. Anxious to stress the theme of visual unification—part of a domestic effort to rally support for the military mission abroad—books such as Say, Is This the U.S.A., by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, and This Is America, by Eleanor Roosevelt and Francis MacGregor,3 celebrated and promoted national unity through American landscape photography. This symbolic unity, however, was often achieved at great cost which, in many cases as we shall see, was borne by Japanese American internees.

The link between patriotism and landscape is crucial, not the least because this connection affirms an ideological tradition rooted in American painting. As Angela Miller argues, the American landscape does not simply suggest a relationship with nature. Rather, it perpetuates "the nationalist myth—that the physical environment itself produced national character."4 It is within this context of national unity-building, a project that draws extensively upon landscape ideology,5 that we need to consider perhaps the most fascinating collection of images produced during this period, the portfolio of evacuation, internment, and relocation that I am calling here "detention photography." That landscape, provisionally defined as the formal composition of space, should be detention photography's privileged aesthetic is appropriate given the spatial focus of the Order. Indeed, nowhere is this focus more obvious than in the Order's central contradiction, which the detention photos would take special pains to resolve: for although Hawaii's vulnerability had been exposed by the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was the Pacific Coastal mainland, not the islands, which was designated a military zone. In constituting spaces of human confinement, or, as the WRA would call it in a subsequent publication, of [End Page 338] "human conservation,"6 the camps highlight the inextricable link between the spatial and human dimensions of the evacuation.

This article explores the connection between spatial confinement and human conservation, by examining how detention photography symbolically negotiates those links through its emphasis on landscape ideology. Although for the most part officially sanctioned, detention photography comprises part of...


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pp. 337-371
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