This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – American photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr’s long-term project on the incarceration of American-Japanese during WWII is now a book Behind Barbed Wire. Plus the winners of this year’s Australian Photography Awards.
2019 Australian Photography Awards
In 2019 there were 11 categories awarded in the Australian Photography Awards – Portrait, Landscape, Aerial, Documentary, Travel / Street, Wildlife, Mobile, Film / Analogue, Open / Illustrative, Student, Junior and Peoples Choice. And the winners are…
Paul Kitagaki Jr – Behind Barbed Wire: Searching for Japanese Americans Incarcerated During World War II
One of America’s darkest hours came in 1942 when the Roosevelt government ordered Japanese American citizens be removed from their homes and sent to internment camps in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbour.
I remember seeing the photographs that Dorothea Lange took for the military of this shameful mass incarceration, pictures that were kept hidden for decades. More than 100,000 people were rounded up, babies, old people, those who were frail and ailing, teenagers, business people. No one was left untouched.
Now a new book Behind Barbed Wire – Searching for Japanese Americans Incarcerated During World War II reveals the personal toll of this heinous act by a government against its own people. Paul Kitagaki Jr. is a third generation Japanese American. He is also an award-winning photojournalist who has been published widely and currently is on-staff at the Sacramento Bee in California.
This is a very personal story for Kitagaki. His parents and their families were rounded up and incarcerated for the duration of the war, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans. This is despite the fact that they were American citizens and many, including the Kitagaki’s, had sons serving in the American armed forces.
Kitagaki learned about this ugly moment in his country’s history at high school in the 1970s. His parents never talked about what had happened to them during the war. He writes “the revelation of Roosevelt’s order in my American history class made me hungry for more.” It also made him angry.
He began to do his own research, which included Lange’s photographs, which “showed the humanity and suffering of people who looked like me. Somehow, she had the ability to capture the moment when a person’s life changed.”
Discovering this shocking history also changed Kitagaki’s life. Pouring through Lange’s 900 images at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, he uncovered pictures of his own grandparents, and also his father who was 14 years old at the time.
“Dad looked dazed, sad and shocked, as if he was wondering what would come next.”
Kitagaki says he “wanted to find out what happened to the people in the pictures” including his own family. He wanted understand what had happened, to know the events of which his parents and grandparents had never spoken about.
In 2005 his journey to began, but it was a slow process and after seven years he had identified only twelve survivors from the pictures in the archives. But as his project attracted publicity more came forward and a collective experience emerged.
The book features the stories and photographs of 61 people and Kitagaki has paired the original photograph from the archives with the black and white picture he took so many years later.
There are three chapters: In the name of security; Toward armed soldiers; and Japanese Americans Banished, which gives the book structure and leads the reader on the journey. At the end is a map of the camps and you can see their spread across the country.
I wrote about Kitagaki’s project for Photojournalism Now in 2015 and am excited to now see it as a book. This is an incredibly important body of work that draws focus on the individuals who were the victims of a reactionary government who took aim at its own people. We are seeing the same kind of racial vilification and rhetoric in American today. This book reminds us why intolerance is not acceptable and that our humanity is what connects us all.
Behind Barbed Wire is thoughtfully designed, and each story is introduced by a quote or a simple statement: “For decades, the identify of the grandfather and grandson remained a mystery” – this is how the story of Walter Sakawye and his grandfather Torazo begins. Walter shares that his grandfather “passed away, I think, more or less of a broken heart. In the picture, he just appears to be saying, ‘What’d I do? Why am I here?”
The book tells of the times in the camps and also the difficulties that people faced when they were released and tried to pick up their lives; they were not just removed from their homes, but had to relinquish their jobs and sell their businesses.
The story of twins Tadao and Yukio Yoshikawa, who were just children when they were incarcerated is introduced by a quote that reflects the temperature of society at that time: ‘So when we first got back, they put mattresses up against our bedroom windows so that if somebody threw rocks we wouldn’t get injured.” The pair grew up to be rocket scientists giving back to a country that had turned against them.
Kitagaki says that in creating the series, “I learned something about the incarceration from each person I met. The secrets and pain that my parents didn’t talk about…each had a story to tell….when their accounts are strung together and placed in the order that the original photographs were taken, the people I found tell a moving, coherent story of the incarceration. Some wanted to forget; some wanted to remember. Some lost everything, some found new direction. And all seemed determined to make sure it will never happen again.” So should we.