Camp Diaries

2008 | B&W | HD video | 14:30


Camp Diaries merges two radically different archives to get at the underlying meaning of Japanese-American internment and its continuing relevance in a post-9/11 context. In this collision of viewpoints, each with an embedded agenda of its own, the materials of U.S. government propaganda are juxtaposed with photographer Dorothea Lange’s authoritative, jarring and ultimately subversive work documenting the stages of internment from its inception.

Lange was commissioned by the federal government to document Japanese-American “relocation”, and she set for herself a delicate task: how to carry out the job to the satisfaction of her employers and yet at the same time communicate the outrage she felt about what was taking place. She thus embedded her critique deep within the images, creating portraits of people looking into the lens of the camera, not just towards their contemporaries, so many of whom were blinded by fear and hatred, but perhaps more towards Americans in an unknowable future who, some day, would have the perspective to understand the injustice and harm being done. Lange’s many hundreds of photographs, suppressed and impounded during and after World War II, were for many years rarely distributed or promoted in any way, with only a few exceptions. They remained hidden in the National Archives until the Nisei children of the camps matured into adulthood in the 1960s and began to circulate them more widely.

The propagandizing “documentary” films made by government agencies at the time alternated between describing the apocalyptic menace of invasion and, absurdly, showing the internment program in a benign light. These films argued aggressively that the camps were both legal and necessary for the security of the homeland. The propaganda films themselves, familiar to generations of film students, have here been somewhat re-scripted, and ironic echoes of more recent propaganda and disinformation campaigns are unavoidable. The familiar, strident voiceovers of these notorious films are re-tasked to better get at the underlying truths they betray. Short cutaway shots have been extracted and slowed for quiet, careful examination, at times split into pairs that reveal an unsettling poetry.

Lange’s images have aged well, their original subversive agenda having gained clarity with the passage of time. Inserted into the narratives of propaganda, they are as relevant today as they ever were.

Photographs: stills from the National Archives, produced through the War Relocation Authority of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Dorothea Lange.

Films: A Challenge to Democracy (1944) Office of War Information & Office of Strategic Services; Japanese Relocation (1943) Office of War Information, Bureau of Motion Pictures; Our Enemy The Japanese (1943) Office of War Information, Bureau of Motion Pictures; Target Tokyo (1944) Universal Pictures Newsreel.