Thursday, February 26, 2009

Civil Liberties, Representation, and the Power of Photography

"The Rights of the Camera"


Civil Liberties, Representation, and the Power of

Photography in World War II and Today


By Jasmine Alinder



February 19th is the annual Day of Remembrance for Japanese American incarceration.  On this day in

1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of over 120,000 people during the Second World War.


Most Americans today take access to cameras and to

photographic images for granted. Photographs of

weddings and other personal rites of passage have been

used to define who we are as individuals, and as

members of larger collectives including families and

nation-states. Photographs are used to sell products

but they also are used as keepsakes, mementos, records,

and historical documents. We carry photographs around

with us--in wallets and on cell phones. The family

album, though becoming a casualty of the digital age,

is still one of the most valuable possessions many

people own. I was reminded of this last week as a

tearful Australian woman recounted her harrowing escape

from her fire-engulfed home and lost everything,

including, she noted painfully, her family photo album.


Photography was and remains such a vital vehicle for

the definition of self in American life that many

Americans regard access to photography as a fundamental

right. If voting is a means for citizens to voice their

political will, by the late nineteenth century,

photography had become a way to visually articulate

citizenship, used to assert one's unsuitability or

fitness as a member of the nation. Although many of us

take the right to use a camera for granted, both recent

and historical examples reveal that access to and

control of the photographic image is far from a

guaranteed right in our society.


The right to the camera is certainly an essential

component of a free press. Last September the arrest of

media workers covering the protests during the

Republican National Convention, including the brutal

apprehension of a producer for Democracy Now!, whose

camera continued to film as she was pushed to the

pavement, provide evidence of the close ties between

the license to photograph and first amendment rights to

free speech. We rely on camera images to expose rights

abuses from Rodney King to Abu Ghraib. Other scholars

have noted connections between the shocking photographs

of torture at Abu Ghraib and those made decades ago of

lynchings. In both examples, photos were taken as

trophies to verify the power and authority of the

tormentors. But to other eyes, these photographs were

evidence of hate crimes. The trophies became proof not

of heroism but of evil.


Historically, there are other examples that link

representational freedoms with civil liberties. After

the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for example, the U.S.

government's efforts to restrict and confiscate cameras

and photographs during the round-up of Japanese

Americans demonstrates the power it attributed to

photography. Cameras were classified as weapons, in the

same category as guns, bombs and ammunition;

photographs were collected and scrutinized in raids on

Japanese American homes.


With the prohibition of cameras, government officials

believed that they were discouraging sabotage, but they

also took away the ability for Japanese Americans to

photographically represent themselves and what was

happening to them -- first during their "evacuation"

from the western states, and later during their mass

incarceration in internment and concentration camps.

While images in the popular press dehumanized people of

Japanese descent, the confiscation of cameras and

photographs curtailed the possibility of alternative

portrayals of Japanese American life.


Japanese Americans, who feared that cultural links to

Japan would be cause for their arrest, burned

photographs of family from Japan. As one incarcerated

college student recalled in 1942:


    "I spied [my] mother with tears burning pictures of

    her relatives back in Japan, looking at them one by

    one for the last time and burning them."[i]


During the years in the camps, significant rites of

passage similarly escaped photographic memorialization,

and Japanese Americans were denied the ability to

verify their mistreatment or harsh conditions. The

government's control over who clicked the shutter was

an exertion of power over the right to self-

representation-a continuation of the legal efforts to

control the Japanese American body that had their

origins in nineteenth-century immigration legislation.

While images in the popular press dehumanized people of

Japanese descent, the confiscation of cameras and

photographs curtailed the possibility of alternative

portrayals of Japanese American life.


Despite the strict control over photography, Japanese

Americans found ways to document their lives with the

camera. At a moment when constitutional rights were

suspended and patriotism questioned, access to

photography in order to represent personal rites of

passage became an essential tool to articulate

themselves as normal Americans. An essay written by a

woman who identified herself as a "Nisei mother"

presented the issue in poignantly personal terms. After

she described the discrimination and insults she faced

following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she lamented her

inability to photograph her young daughter:


    Since she was an infant, I had been keeping a

    photographic account of her monthly growth. We had

    a separate album just for her, and the confiscation

    of our camera prior to evacuation was one of the

    'minor blows' which we received. In the course of

    daily events the confiscation of cameras may have

    been a minor matter, but to us, (especially to us,

    the doting mother with only one child) it was

    something we could not count in dollars and cents.

    Here our children are getting older, day by day,

    and once their childhood is gone, nothing on this

    earth can bring it back, and if we have no mementos

    of their growth, we feel cheated and a little

    bitter to think that just a snapshot now and then,

    even if it was taken in a 'concentration camp' is

    better than nothing at all.[ii]


She then continued to explain that she refused to have

any more children because the incarceration had

threatened her sense of security, and she did not want

to link a child's birth forever to a concentration

camp. Her touching account of her losses placed access

to photographic representation at the center. Her other

material possessions could be repurchased, and after

her release she promised to "try to pick up the threads

of our former life and live in the true American

traditions." The only things she irretrievably lost

were the photographs never made of her growing

daughter. As her ironic use of quotation marks clearly

indicates, the blow felt from the confiscation of her

camera was far from minor.


Representation is a fundamental concept in American

visions of citizenship. It is intimately connected to

public narratives that express the core values of

democracy, as in "taxation without representation."

Although the term used in that sense refers

specifically to elected representation in government,

by the mid-twentieth century, photography had become

and continues to be one of the most important ways in

which Americans represented themselves to themselves and to others.




    [i] Quoted in Leighton, The Governing of Men, 32.


    [ii] "A Nisei Mother Looks at Evacuation,"

    Community Analysis Section, Manzanar Relocation

    Center, 26 October, 1943, Folder 2, Box 7, Manzanar

    Records, Special Collections, UCLA.


Jasmine Alinder is an assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-

Milwaukee. Her new book is entitled, Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration

(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009). She has just been awarded a Charles Ryskamp

fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies to support research on her next project,

which focuses on photography and the law. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in

this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.




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