Then They Came For Me

A photography exhibit about the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans in the United States during WWII
At the Presidio in San Francisco through August 31st.


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Barbed wire – on a wall at the exhibit



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There are many things about this exhibit at the Presidio in San Francisco that were shocking to me, made me pause and catch my breath. I’ve seen some of these photographs before, yet this time, perhaps because of how they are displayed, or because of what’s happening in the US today, I felt a deeper hurt and sadness than ever before. 

Is it seeing Clem Albers’ photograph of the children with name tags in the back of the truck? The look in the eyes of the child staring straight back still haunts me. These children peering through wooden slats conjure up images of children lying in cages, forever traumatized. Today these children are being forcefully separated from their parents and incarcerated.
Some are only a few months old!
As a result of ICE raids some children come home from school to find their parents gone… gone…disappeared without a trace, without a goodbye… all that is left is a traumatic void of despair!

I feel my heart break, the tears well up as this thought sinks in.

Or is it the realization of how close we are once again of being in this place? No, not close… we are here…  It’s happening as I write. People of color are being rounded up, incarcerated, separated from their families…. without due process. They too come from another country and are being demonized by the man sitting in the oval office. Some are just arriving, seeking refuge, asylum. Some have only been here a little while, others longer, and for some this is the only place they have ever really known.

Or is it once again the frightening realization of the devastating, terrifying effect privileged white mentality can have? Or seeing to what degree white people in the past and present, with, or without awareness, oppress and dehumanize people of color, people who look different? 

Or is it me, as I look at the photograph of white folks lining a street watching, jeering while Japanese Americans are being forcefully taken to detention centers? Me becoming aware of my own whiteness, my part in the collective whiteness? I’m guessing these folks were from the same, or nearby communities, perhaps neighbors. Folks who shopped in stores owned and run by Japanese Americans and ate the food that was grown by them. The anti Japanese American sentiment, hysteria was instilled and fueled by the government, in the same way Trump’s administration is fueling anti Muslim and anti immigrant feelings today.

“Our lives begin to end when we become silent about the things that matter.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Or is it the stark reminder that a lot of this horror took place here in California? In the Bay Area, in San Francisco, Hayward, San Jose, Sacramento, the Valley…  the area where I live today. Not that I haven’t been aware of this before, but this time it’s the “Oh my God, these photographs are of people who lived in this area. This is where they had their farms and homes and businesses. This is where everything was taken away from them. Just down the road from where I live!” This time it’s tangible! All along the West Coast Japanese Americans were forcefully removed and sent to incarceration camps. And this is happening again with a different group of people.

Along with the sadness and hurt I also experienced inspiration from the photographs themselves. To see the power photographs can have through the stories they tell, and how they tell them. The gifts they contain. The portraits, the moments and emotions that were caught on film. The choices photographers make in where and how they choose to focus their attention, what they want to convey, what they want us to see and experience. Grateful to the photographers who recorded this moment in time, for us to see, to know what was really going on rather than what the government wanted people to see and think was going on.  Some of the photographers like Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and Clem Albers were hired by the US government with the sole purpose of taking ‘propaganda’ pictures. In some cases like with Dorothea Lange they chose to do different. Other photographers were Japanese American prisoners who smuggled in some of their equipment and built the rest in the camps. Today photographers are not allowed in detention camps or prisons where people migrating from south of the border are being incarcerated. Only a few photographs of the immigrant and refugee prisoners’ living conditions are shown to the public, at least that I know of, and the ones that I have seen are of children. 

Some of Dorothea Lange’s censored photographs of Japanese American forced removal and incarceration camps during WWII can be seen here




Categories: People, Photography, The Journey, WritingsTags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. So strange, Arati, that you and I would post on the same subject today. Be sure to check out my post on Manzanar. Your post is excellent. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Curt.
      I did check out your post. I appreciate hearing your personal account and imagine that meeting Bob Matsui might have been a moving and meaningful experience for you. I can’t help but think that someone else wrote what Ronald Reagan read. Isn’t that what speech writers are for? Somehow it’s hard for me to imagine Ronald being that articulate. “Polyglot”, Reagan? And then again who knows?

      In reading one of the comments on your post I am reminded of how difficult it can be for me to honor and focus on one person, or group of people’s experience without immediately comparing or referencing another group. I found myself dealing with this frequently while I was touring the exhibit.

      When I saw the photographs and notes about Japanese Americans being forcefully taken, and the camps they were incarcerated in, what their living conditions were like I had to watch my mind as it was drawn to making comparisons with what happened to Jews in Europe. I wanted to focus my full attention on what these Japanese Americans might have experienced. How dehumanizing this experience was for them. In some way to clear my mind of anything else as a way of honoring and offering respect.

      To stay focused on the person or people, in this case Japanese Americans without immediately making a comparison to other populations, which for me in some way, whether intentional or not can diminish how in this case I can empathize with the experience of Japanese Americans in the US during WWII. It’s like a distraction. As if in some way my mind doesn’t want to fully deal with the experience and therefore intellectualizes it. Or is it simply that to my mind it’s incomprehensible how something as horrific as this incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII could have happened, that people would have allowed this to happen. And that we are allowing it to happen again.


      • First, Arati, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I, too, end up making comparisons. It’s impossible not to. The horror of the concentration camps in Europe during World War II is unmatchable in modern times. And what is happening on our southern border now is one more example of man’s inhumanity to man. The value of Manzanar is in the lessons it has to teach us, and in not letting such lessons fade into oblivion. It is all too easy to forget, and all to easy to let such things happen again. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

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