Using an Adams Photograph of Manzanar as a Primary Source

By Laura Mitchell
Published on 04/01/2002

Historical Background

After the devastation of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive Order 9066 that led to the imprisonment in the United States of Japanese residents and American citizens of Japanese descent. Perhaps the best known of these camps was Manzanar, which was home to approximately 10,000 people from March 1942 to September 1945. Although no one at Manzanar was charged with a crime, the camp was for all intents and purposes a prison, complete with armed guards, searchlights, barbed wire, and barracks. Half of Manzanar's inhabitants were women, and one-quarter were children; a family of four was allotted a space of 20 feet by 25 feet. Their "homes" were equipped with steel-framed cots, straw mattresses, and electricity, but no running water. Laundry, toilet, and bathing facilities were all shared, and everyone ate in a communal mess hall. Conditions in the east central California desert were harsh: bitterly cold in winter and seeringly hot in summer. Nevertheless, internees had to grow their own food in the desert soil. In the end, they grew not only food, but also created a traditional Japanese garden called "Pleasure Park."

The Ansel Adams Manzanar Photo Collection

In 1943 Manzanar's director, Ralph Merritt, invited Ansel Adams to photograph the camp. Merritt had known Adams for a long time and was familiar with Adams's superb landscape photography. Merritt asked Adams to photograph the people at Manzanar as they went about their daily activities. Adams took numerous photos, many of which he published in 1944 under the title Born Free and Equal. The book is Adams's only photo essay and represents some of his most important work. Published amid wartime prejudice against Japanese, public reaction to the volume was not positive. Many copies of the book were burned; as a result, an original copy is now rare.

Another photographer, Toyo Miyatake, was also active at Manzanar. Miyatake was a professional photographer in Los Angeles who was interned at Manzanar. At that time "Japanese" were technically not allowed to own cameras, and Miyatake could not bring his equipment with him to Manzanar. He did, however, smuggle in a lens and some other essential items with which he built a wooden camera. Ralph Merritt eventually found out about the unauthorized camera, but he did not confiscate it and even sent for the rest of Miyatake's equipment so that he could take photos of camp life. These photos were exhibited at the camp along with those of Ansel Adams. Today, all that is left at Manzanar is a stone monument. Adams's and Miyatake's photos are therefore critical primary sources for this part of American history.

Using an Adams Photo as a Primary Source

In Born Free and Equal, Adams called Manzanar "a detour on the road of American citizenship." In his photos, Adams attempted to communicate this idea by showing the "normalcy" of the Japanese-Americans who were living in conditions that were far from normal. In text and photos, Adams registered his outrage that Americans of Japanese descent had been put in prison for no other reason than their ethnic background. To make his argument, he focused his lens on family life, daily work, popular recreational activities, and religious worship.

Adams's photo of Manzanar's maternity ward is one example of a photo designed to persuade the viewer that Japanese Americans were "just like" the rest of the nation's citizenry. Adams titled the photo "Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi and Frances Yokoyama in Nursery of Camp Hospital, 1943." But the photo tells us much more. The nurse's uniform shows that she is a professional; indeed, many of Manzanar's internees held professional degrees and were employed in their specific fields at the camp. Nurse Hamaguchi stands with the baby behind glass, thus showing that the camp's hospital is as modern as any other hospital. The baby appears healthy, and the baby's mother is well dressed and attentive. This is a "normal" American family scene.
Adams was clearly impressed with the camp hospital and observed that it was "a complete health-service enterprise, with modern equipment, appointments, and methods." But photos can not tell the whole story. Other evidence indicates that the Manzanar hospital was faced with chronic shortages of basic supplies, as were many hospitals during the war. Nor does the photo betray that this was a prison hospital. Adams was prohibited from photographing anything that revealed that Manzanar was a prison, such as guards, towers, and barbed wire. This photo thus makes Adams's point that the Japanese at Manzanar were "regular" people, but the hospital's very "normalcy" undercuts the argument that Manzanar was fundamentally an infringement on the internees' civil rights.

Additional Sources

For additional resources, check out the full online collection, Suffering Under a Great Injustice: Ansel Adams's Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar.

[send article to a friend]
[print full article]
[return to front page]

Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi, mother Frances Yokoyama, baby Fukomoto, Manzanar Relocation Center, California
The Library of Congress | American Memory | The Learning Page | Contact us