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This just in on the social power of the camera.


"The Rights of the Camera"

Civil Liberties, Representation, and the Power of
Photography in World War II and Today

By Jasmine Alinder

[Note:  February 19th is the annual Day of Remembrance
for Japanese American incarceration.  On this day in
1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive
Order 9066, which led to the internment of over 120,000
people during the Second World War]

Most Americans today take access to cameras and to
photographic images for granted. Photographs of
weddings and other personal rites of passage have been
used to define who we are as individuals, and as
members of larger collectives including families and
nation-states. Photographs are used to sell products
but they also are used as keepsakes, mementos, records,
and historical documents. We carry photographs around
with us--in wallets and on cell phones. The family
album, though becoming a casualty of the digital age,
is still one of the most valuable possessions many
people own. I was reminded of this last week as a
tearful Australian woman recounted her harrowing escape
from her fire-engulfed home and lost everything,
including, she noted painfully, her family photo album.

Photography was and remains such a vital vehicle for
the definition of self in American life that many
Americans regard access to photography as a fundamental
right. If voting is a means for citizens to voice their
political will, by the late nineteenth century,
photography had become a way to visually articulate
citizenship, used to assert one's unsuitability or
fitness as a member of the nation. Although many of us
take the right to use a camera for granted, both recent
and historical examples reveal that access to and
control of the photographic image is far from a
guaranteed right in our society.

The right to the camera is certainly an essential
component of a free press. Last September the arrest of
media workers covering the protests during the
Republican National Convention, including the brutal
apprehension of a producer for Democracy Now!, whose
camera continued to film as she was pushed to the
pavement, provide evidence of the close ties between
the license to photograph and first amendment rights to
free speech. We rely on camera images to expose rights
abuses from Rodney King to Abu Ghraib. Other scholars
have noted connections between the shocking photographs
of torture at Abu Ghraib and those made decades ago of
lynchings. In both examples, photos were taken as
trophies to verify the power and authority of the
tormentors. But to other eyes, these photographs were
evidence of hate crimes. The trophies became proof not
of heroism but of evil.

Historically, there are other examples that link
representational freedoms with civil liberties. After
the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for example, the U.S.
government's efforts to restrict and confiscate cameras
and photographs during the round-up of Japanese
Americans demonstrates the power it attributed to
photography. Cameras were classified as weapons, in the
same category as guns, bombs and ammunition;
photographs were collected and scrutinized in raids on
Japanese American homes.

With the prohibition of cameras, government officials
believed that they were discouraging sabotage, but they
also took away the ability for Japanese Americans to
photographically represent themselves and what was
happening to them -- first during their "evacuation"
from the western states, and later during their mass
incarceration in internment and concentration camps.
While images in the popular press dehumanized people of
Japanese descent, the confiscation of cameras and
photographs curtailed the possibility of alternative
portrayals of Japanese American life.

Japanese Americans, who feared that cultural links to
Japan would be cause for their arrest, burned
photographs of family from Japan. As one incarcerated
college student recalled in 1942:

   "I spied [my] mother with tears burning pictures of
   her relatives back in Japan, looking at them one by
   one for the last time and burning them."[i]

During the years in the camps, significant rites of
passage similarly escaped photographic memorialization,
and Japanese Americans were denied the ability to
verify their mistreatment or harsh conditions. The
government's control over who clicked the shutter was
an exertion of power over the right to self-
representation-a continuation of the legal efforts to
control the Japanese American body that had their
origins in nineteenth-century immigration legislation.
While images in the popular press dehumanized people of
Japanese descent, the confiscation of cameras and
photographs curtailed the possibility of alternative
portrayals of Japanese American life.

Despite the strict control over photography, Japanese
Americans found ways to document their lives with the
camera. At a moment when constitutional rights were
suspended and patriotism questioned, access to
photography in order to represent personal rites of
passage became an essential tool to articulate
themselves as normal Americans. An essay written by a
woman who identified herself as a "Nisei mother"
presented the issue in poignantly personal terms. After
she described the discrimination and insults she faced
following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she lamented her
inability to photograph her young daughter:

   Since she was an infant, I had been keeping a
   photographic account of her monthly growth. We had
   a separate album just for her, and the confiscation
   of our camera prior to evacuation was one of the
   'minor blows' which we received. In the course of
   daily events the confiscation of cameras may have
   been a minor matter, but to us, (especially to us,
   the doting mother with only one child) it was
   something we could not count in dollars and cents.
   Here our children are getting older, day by day,
   and once their childhood is gone, nothing on this
   earth can bring it back, and if we have no mementos
   of their growth, we feel cheated and a little
   bitter to think that just a snapshot now and then,
   even if it was taken in a 'concentration camp' is
   better than nothing at all.[ii]

She then continued to explain that she refused to have
any more children because the incarceration had
threatened her sense of security, and she did not want
to link a child's birth forever to a concentration
camp. Her touching account of her losses placed access
to photographic representation at the center. Her other
material possessions could be repurchased, and after
her release she promised to "try to pick up the threads
of our former life and live in the true American
traditions." The only things she irretrievably lost
were the photographs never made of her growing
daughter. As her ironic use of quotation marks clearly
indicates, the blow felt from the confiscation of her
camera was far from minor.

Representation is a fundamental concept in American
visions of citizenship. It is intimately connected to
public narratives that express the core values of
democracy, as in "taxation without representation."
Although the term used in that sense refers
specifically to elected representation in government,
by the mid-twentieth century, photography had become
and continues to be one of the most important ways in
which Americans represented themselves to themselves
and to others.


   [i] Quoted in Leighton, The Governing of Men, 32.

   [ii] "A Nisei Mother Looks at Evacuation,"
   Community Analysis Section, Manzanar Relocation
   Center, 26 October, 1943, Folder 2, Box 7, Manzanar
   Records, Special Collections, UCLA.

Jasmine Alinder is an assistant professor in the
History Department at the University of Wisconsin-
Milwaukee. Her new book is entitled, Moving Images:
Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration
(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,
2009). She has just been awarded a Charles Ryskamp
fellowship from the American Council of Learned
Societies to support research on her next project,
which focuses on photography and the law.

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