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LOS ANGELES — In August 1942, thousands of Japanese Americans from Los Angeles began their lives as prisoners on a wide stretch of prairie in northwestern Wyoming. Among those forcibly relocated to Heart Mountain concentration camp was a photographer and auto mechanic from Hollywood named Bill Manbo, whose Kodachrome color photographs are the subject of the Japanese American National Museum’s Colors of Confinement.
Among the 18 photographs in the exhibition are rare documents that challenge the kind of imagery one might expect from internment camps. These images are not of dour-faced prisoners living in squalid conditions. Many of them feature scenes of a vibrant community taking part in activities like dancing, wrestling, and ice skating. A portrait of Manbo’s wife Mary and her family, dressed in formal attire, pieces together a semblance of normalcy.
In the portrait, Mary Manbo and her sister Eunice flank their parents, Junzo and Riyo Itaya. At the center is the Manbos’ son Billy, who carries a toy airplane. The family looks like they are dressed for a special occasion as they pose in front of an endless prairie. As Mary and Eunice smile, their parents are placid, as if unable to pretend for the camera that their lives are anything but undignified and unjust.
Another image features a group of women dressed in kimono, a colorful patchwork of flower prints and patterns. The only reminder of their status as prisoners is the ubiquitous wooden barrack and guard tower in the background. Manbo’s photographs capture prisoners of Heart Mountain in the midst of revelry, moments in which they can forget the stark realities of camp life. They are also affecting documents of childhood lived out in the space of a concentration camp.
Several of the photographs focus on Billy Manbo, the photographer’s young son. A group portrait of Billy and five other children suggests that life at Heart Mountain may have been less difficult for the very young, who do not understand the severity of their situation. Another photograph depicts Billy and another child sitting on the dirt floor, lost in their play and imagination.
Out of context, these images may run the risk of effacing the injustice and cruelty of internment camps by presenting incarceration as endurable and even innocuous. At worst, they may seem to absolve the U.S. government and its civilian-led War Relocation Authority of wrongdoing. If these prisoners could enjoy the benefit of a rich cultural life, if Bill Manbo could walk the camp freely and snap photographs of his community, could the existence of Heart Mountain have been all that bad?
Bill Manbo’s photographs respond to this possibility by presenting a different side of life in Heart Mountain, the part of camp life that existed outside of ceremony and activities. In contrast to his close-up portraits of people, Manbo aims his camera at the surrounding landscape of Heart Mountain, the vast prairie and mountains which surround the camp on all sides. Also never out of sight are watch towers, barbed wire, and fences—the built environment that physically confines its prisoners. Manbo’s landscape photography contrasts the openness of the prairie with the claustrophobia of imprisonment.
A wide-angle photograph depicts little Billy Manbo walking down a dirt road. To the left are barracks and piles of coal. At the far end of the road is the snowy peak of the camp’s namesake. Depicted alone, the small child is swallowed by his surroundings, which are devoid of the humanity that is prominent in Manbo’s other photographs. The lonesome Wyoming landscape gives clue to the kind of despair suffered by the prisoners.
These images are a reminder that the residents of Heart Mountain took back their humanity in spite of the conditions of forced removal and imprisonment. What dignity and joy that existed in Heart Mountain came not from the largesse of the government, but rather from the effort and strength of the prisoners themselves. That these photographs are in color should not be a factor in whether or not the events depicted feel more immediate or pertinent, but the Kodachrome colors work only to reinforce the fact that even as history the existence of Heart Mountain is in the fairly recent past.
Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II continues at the Japanese American National Museum (100 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles) through August 31.