Some images echo across generations. When you see pictures of migrants incarcerated in camps on the U.S.-Mexico border, they bear a haunting similarity to pictures from another event in U.S. history: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the removal of Japanese Americans, many of whom lived in California, into 10 relocation centers. Nearly 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were forcibly moved to internment camps in 1942, in violation of their right to due process.
Most of those who were incarcerated have passed away. Paul Kitagaki Jr., the son of internees and a photographer for the Sacramento Bee, spent 14 years tracking down survivors in an effort to document their experiences. “My mom was at Poston, and my dad was at Topaz,” Kitagaki says. “They didn’t talk about it. I found out by accident, taking a history class in high school. I came home and asked my parents about what happened.”
Kitagaki located the subjects of more than 60 photos taken by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and others who visited the camps and shot images of the internees, including Kitagaki’s family. His book, Behind Barbed Wire, pairs his photos with the originals in a moving presentation of injustice. (For more Lange photographs, see page 34.)
In 1982, a federal commission concluded that racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership had led to the mass incarceration—not a credible threat to the country. The United States apologized and paid survivors $20,000 each—a pittance when set against their lost farms, homes, and dreams.