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

By Jasmine Alinder, Special to Asian-American Village


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 Photographs are used to sell products but they also are used as keepsakes, mementos, records, and historical documents.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.


Photography as Evidence, Weaponry in WWII

Available @ Amazon

Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration
By Jasmine Alinder
Pub Date: February 2009

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.


Other Readings of Interest @AAV


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. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.