Sunday, October 18, 2009

the remarkable vision of Dorothea Lange

This photo of a Japanese- American mother and her son was taken by Dorothea Lange in Sacramento County California during the forced internment of Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbour. It is one of 800 photos Lange took of Japanese Americans. The photos were censored by the US Army until 2006.

The caption to the photo reads:
"A soldier and his mother in a strawberry field. The soldier, age 23, volunteered July 10, 1941. He was furloughed to help his mother and family prepare for their evacuation. He is the youngest of six years children, two of them volunteers in United States Army. The mother, age 53, came from Japan 37 years ago. Her husband died 21 years ago, leaving her to raise six children. She worked in a strawbery basket factory until last year when her her children leased three acres of strawberries “so she wouldn’t have to work for somebody else”. The family is Buddhist. This is her youngest son. Her second son is in the army stationed at Fort Bliss. 453 families are to be evacuated from this area. (Photo: Japan Focus).
The photo can be found in a piece by historian Linda Gordon here.
The release of a new biography of Dorthea Lange by historian Linda Gordon is a reminder of the contemporary significance of her work. From her photos of the internment of Japanese Americans during WW II, to her remarkable photos of people mired in poverty and destitution during the Great Depression, Lange is regarded as one of the greatest photographic witnesses. Her work has profound resonance with contemporary times.

The photos taken during the worst years of the 1930's Depression show the human costs of poverty and unemployment. The Depression era photographs show a time of extreme dislocation, a time when millions of American families were made poorer as a result of corporate and market collapse. Those photos take on a particular resonance today as more and more ordinary people are driven into unemployment and destitution as a result of the corporate induced recession.

Only recently uncovered and just as remarkable are Lange's photos of the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, Lange was hired by the American War Relocation Authority to take photographs of Japanese Americans who were being interned in camps (detention centres) throughout America. The photos were impounded by the government and only made public in 2006 in a book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored images of Japanese Internment.

From Lange's work there is much that we can take that is directly relevant today. Whenever I see her photos I am reminded that to respond to injustice, we must first simply learn how to see it. Here's Linda Gordon, the author of the new biography, on the relevance of Lange's photos in the context of contemporary debates about internment without charge:
"Their relevance to internment-without-charges today seemed to me to require bringing them to public attention. Dorothea Lange challenged the political culture that categorized people of Japanese ancestry as disloyal, perfidious, potentially traitorous, that stripped them of their citizenship and made them unAmerican."

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