While the photographs of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange have helped shape visual understandings of World War II incarceration, there are many lesser known photographers who documented the Japanese American experience during era. One of those photographers, Hikaru “Carl” Iwasaki, captured intimate family moments in camps like Heart Mountain and Jerome, as well as the resettlement process in cities from Bellevue to Buffalo and beyond.
As a scrappy middle school student in 1930s San Jose, Calif., Iwasaki developed a passion for photography. He found every opportunity to sharpen his skills, be it through shooting for his school newspaper and yearbook or working at a local photo studio. As a teen, he perfected dark room techniques and chemical alchemies needed to print his captivating portraits.
But at age 19, Executive Order 9066 temporarily interrupted his dream of becoming a professional photographer. Along with his family and some 120,000 other Japanese Americans, Iwasaki was forced into mandatory detention facilities for the remainder of World War II. After a brief stay at the Santa Anita racetrack-turned-prison, Iwasaki was relocated to a more permanent prison at Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming.
The U.S. Government forbade detainees from bringing cameras into the camps. Having to abandon his true passion, Iwasaki found the closest approximation to putting his photographic skills to use: working as an x-ray technician for the camp hospital. By July of 1943, however, he had obtained a position working as a darkroom technician for the War Relocation Authority’s Photographic Section (WRAPS), the governmental organization sanctioned to document life in the camps. As demand for photographs increased, Iwasaki became the third full-time WRAPS photographer, a position he held from 1944 to 1945.
Many of Iwasaki’s images from this period capture the winding down of the incarceration camps and resettlement of those Japanese Americans who were granted early leave to go to school or take jobs in new cities. Although the WRA field staff guided him towards particular subjects, he had autonomy in choosing his shots and his photos were never censored by the WRA nor by the U.S. Army as Dorothea Lange’s had been. Many of the images have patriotic, wholesome motifs that were echoed by detailed captions.
“Perhaps because of his youth and his personality, his WRAPS photos reveal a fundamental sense of optimism….Although he acknowledges the racism and hatred that faced people of Japanese ancestry during the 1940s, he told me there was not much point in waiting out the war in confinement….that bona fide opportunities existed for Japanese Americans during the war if they were willing to be open-minded and give their best efforts. He deliberately and self-consciously tried to imbue his photographs with this optimism.”
But while many of Iwasaki’s photographs call to mind the works of Norman Rockwell, some quietly capture the emotional and physical wounds inflicted by incarceration. Others feature desolate buildings and abandoned grave sites, left behind when the camps closed.
After his stint as a WRAPS photographer, Iwasaki went on to enjoy a career as a well respected photographer contributing to publications like Time, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, and People. One of his best known photos series documented the hardships faced by Brown v. Board of Education subject, Linda Brown, and her sister as they made their long trek to an African American school, which was further away than their neighborhood “Whites Only” school.
Iwasaki passed away in 2016 at the age of 93, leaving behind family and an impressive and illuminating body of work.
While many Iwasaki photos of post-incarceration life capture sunny images of Japanese Americans integrating into mainstream culture, his shots of people leaving camp show their trepidation and worry about what their new lives might hold. These were juxtaposed with optimistic captions like, “Home again and happy!”
The Children Are the Future
Despite the visceral anxiety of the early resettlement photos, Iwasaki soon began showing Japanese American youth and their families as happily resettled model minorities. These sunny photos contradict countless testimony of discrimination, violence, and racism that returnees faced.
All American Family
Iwasaki also captured wholesome images of Japanese American families, happily settling into domestic bliss that belied the many hardships and disruptions to family life that had occurred as a result of WWII incarceration.
At times, Iwasaki did hint at the darker side of resettlement. Here, his caption forecasts a bright future for the Kodama family while the photo of the happy couple is visually disrupted by barbed wire and the presence of a soldier with a gun holstered at his hip.
From Prisoners to Patriots
A current of patriotism ran through many of the photos, seeming to make the case that Japanese Americans were anything but “enemies of the state.”
Still, some depictions of Japanese Americans revealed the wounds left behind by the war, juxtaposed with symbols of patriotic pride.
Back to School
Forever looking to the future, Iwasaki captured young college students who were eagerly hitting the books in hopes of achieving brighter tomorrows.
Iwasaki’s efforts to capture optimistic views of post-incarceration life didn’t completely elide the darker parts of this history. As Japanese Americans were resettling across America, Iwasaki returned to document the bleak remains of their makeshift prisons.
By Natasha Varner, Densho Communications and Public Engagement Manager
[Header photo: Original caption: Mr. and Mrs. Ted Ohashi, with their three-week-old baby, Katherine, rent a modern two-bedroom bungalow near the most exclusive residential section in St. Louis, Missouri. The Ohashis found this little house indirectly through friends after having been in St. Louis a year. They rent the house furnished by the owner for $50 per month. The Okashis were married at Rohwer Center. Ted is a graduate of the University of California and is now employed as a director of the aquatic activities at the St. Louis YMCA. March 6, 1945. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.]