In 1943, one of America’s best-known photographers documented one of the best-known internment camps.
Seventy-five years ago, nearly 120,000 Americans were incarcerated because of their Japanese roots after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. More than 10,000 were forced to live in the hastily built barracks of Manzanar—two thirds of whom were American citizens by birth. Located in the middle of the high desert in California’s Eastern Sierra region, Manzanar would become one of the best-known internment camps—and in 1943, one of America’s best-known photographers, Ansel Adams, documented daily life there.
As Richard Reeves writes in his history of Japanese-American internment, Adams was friends with the camp’s director, who invited him to the camp in 1943. A “passionate man who hated the idea of the camps,” he hoped to generate sympathy for the internees by depicting the stark realities of their lives. As a result, many of his photos paint a heroic view of internees—people “born free and equal,” as the title of his book collecting the photos insists.