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The exhibition Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is what brought me to the International Center of Photography. After all, the wartime photos of Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Toyo Miyatake are much celebrated today, historical artifacts in themselves. But I felt compelled to stay for The Day the Music Died, British photographer Edmund Clark’s eight video, music, and photography installations on the post-9/11“War on Terror” around the globe.
The pairing of the two exhibitions invites viewers to search for parallels between US national security efforts more than 70 years ago and today: How does the forced relocation of virtually all ethnic Japanese people residing in the US during World War II resemble the dragnet of the current anti-terrorism apparatus around the globe? Both shows shed light on people, more that half a century apart, swept into detention by the US government without due process, in the name of national security. And the juxtaposition has become all the more timely since President Trump’s late January signing of an executive order to keep Guantánamo Bay’s prison open.
I entered the ICP’s first hall almost like I would a shrine. I took in the quiet of the black-and-white photography, absorbing the 1940s styles in the clothing, hats, vehicles, signs, and demeanors.
Then They Came for Me traces the pre-war everyday lives of Japanese-Americans, then how they were abruptly uprooted from their homes after Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Their businesses were shuttered and they were sent en masse to wartime detention camps in the West and South. All told, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were shipped to remote camps after President Franklin Roosevelt’s February 1942 signing of an executive order. (The last camp closed in March 1946.) The exhibition’s narrative covers how they gamely set out to remake their lives upon being released. The show also includes startlingly racist anti-Japanese imagery that circulated in the United States (even in a government publication) before and during World War II.
The photographs — many commissioned by the government but kept under wraps for decades — bear witness to a terrible mistake, a sad chapter capped by belated official apologies and reparations. “[Not] a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast,” a government report noted in 1983.
The most powerful photos in the show convey the intense emotions of that massive human upheaval, like Dorothea Lange’s 1942 shot of a train in Woodland, California. It’s mostly a view of the train’s immense, studded exterior, with a few Japanese faces staring out windows, as if to question the viewer. Even more eerie is Clem Albers’s photo of a truck in San Pedro, California, that resembles a giant wooden crate; only fragments of human forms are visible through the slats. Then there’s Lange’s 1942 photo of nine members of the Mochida family in Centerville, California, the children looking especially solemn, with identification tags hanging around their necks. (All Japanese-American families received ID numbers at registration stations overseen by armed soldiers.) Lange also photographed in this manner 5-year-old Mamoru Takeuchi. He is pictured alone; his father, the wall text explains, had been taken away by the FBI, possibly partly as a result of his having taught at a Japanese-language school.
Photographers working for the euphemistically named War Relocation Authority to document this massive involuntary migration were instructed to not depict armed guards, barbed wire, or watchtowers, according to Susan Carlson, who curated the New York iteration of the show. (It debuted in Chicago last June, with curatorial input from Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, authors of Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.) At least two dozen WRA photos were impounded during World War II, and this show includes one: Clem Albers’s 1942 photo at the Santa Anita assembly center in Arcadia, California, in which a line of 20 armed military men face an orderly group of Japanese-Americans exiting a train. Also on view: Toyo Miyatake’s photo of a watchtower. As opposed to the WRA members, he was a professional photographer who happened to be interned. His photo was published during the war, although only in the camp’s 1943–44 yearbook.
The extent to which Lange’s wartime photos were suppressed has drawn attention and sparked debate since 2006, following Linda Gordon and Gary Okihiro’s publication of Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. New for this exhibition’s presentation at the ICP is a booklet published during the war with four of Lange’s photos. “Outcasts! The Story of America’s Treatment of Her Japanese-American Minority” was written by Caleb Foote, a Quaker who chose prison over military service. He aimed to curb racial prejudice as Japanese families resettled.
The exhibition has also been updated with a copy of Ansel Adams’s book Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans that belonged to the director of the Manzanar detention camp, Ralph Merritt. He had invited his friend Adams to photograph the California camp he supervised; attached inside is correspondence between the two men documenting the restrictions placed on Adams. ”Suffering and want are absent” from Adams’s images, as journalist (and my friend) Nancy Matsumoto has reported.
As I explored Then They Came for Me, music seeped in from a stairwell, beckoning me downstairs. There, the familiar strains of “American Pie” play in an endless loop, seemingly annoying and out of place, and almost competing with Clark’s voice as he gave a guided tour during the show’s preview. A Mother Jones article from 2008, based on leaked information, reported that this pop tune and others formed an “enhanced interrogation” playlist used in US military prisons, along with children’s songs and commercial jingles. Clark took the title for his show from the lyrics of Don McLean’s song.
Ultimately, it is for each viewer to decide how well the two shows work together. But I found deep echoes across both exhibitions — of censorship, the ugly machinery of incarceration, and unsettling images that offer only partial views of human figures.
Since so much of today’s counterterrorism war is cloaked in secrecy, Clark faced a challenge in creating works about the goings-on at military prisons like the one at Guantánamo Bay and the CIA’s now-shuttered “black sites” for interrogations or “extraordinary renditions” — not to mention the detention centers hosted by foreign countries. At times, he arrived at some rather conceptual ways to present the few visuals available.
For “Body Politic” (2016, updated 2018), the outside walls of a small, makeshift room at the center of the gallery are neatly covered with 8 1/2-by-11 sheets of type. The text is the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 2014 report on the CIA’s detention and intelligence program, and the pages are generously obscured by black redactions. A video loop nearby chronicles 20 major players (from Osama bin Laden to Donald Rumsfeld) in what Clark calls the “spectacle” of the terrorism-counterterrorism drama. But the audio is conspicuously absent. The only message, suggests Clark, is the redacted one.
The Pentagon turned over just 198 of 2,000 images of US military prisons taken by the military — and only after concerted pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union. Clark’s installation “198/2000” (2018) draws on the photos that were released. Many are just blurry partial images of human figures, some perhaps bruised. The projected images randomly appear at odd intervals on the interior walls of the small room at the gallery’s center. Clark calibrated the effect to raise questions about what’s missing.
The series Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out (2010) depicts the Cuban detention facility through its living quarters, free of any human figures. The photos are grouped in three rows, according to whose quarters are shown: the incarcerated, naval personnel, or discharged prisoners. (Clark chose to not depict released detainees to avoid perpetuating stereotypes about “Muslim terrorists,” curator Erin Barnett explained.) If some objects of everyday life seem similar from row to row, Clark doesn’t mind: That’s part of his message, what humans share in common.
Clark’s “Letters to Omar” (2010) revolves around his correspondence with Omar Deghayes, a Guantánamo Bay detainee whose brother and attorneys organized a large letter-writing campaign. Deghayes was denied direct access Clark’s letters, however. “Every piece, including blank pages and envelopes, was scanned, redacted, and given a unique reference number,” the exhibition’s literature explains. “His interrogator controlled when and in what form he received the copies.” Deghayes was never charged during his six-year detention at Guantánamo Bay. Not knowing if the correspondence he received was authentic added to his emotional “distress,” a brochure said. Through this and other installations, Clark suggests an element of torture in the counterterrorism saga that seems to have been largely missing from the US Japanese incarceration experience.
The focus of “Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition” (2016) is not the CIA’s running of operations at black sites overseas, though Clark did visit two such sites, he said. The artist collaborated with counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black in an attempt to document a global network of places used by contractors to support the CIA’s secret prison system. Black uncovered legal papers and business receipts; Clark photographed sites named in those documents. “It’s about how they outsource that to a logistics company, who then subcontracts it to small companies that rent airplanes, who organize flight schedules, how that becomes part of everyday life,” Clark told me. “It’s using airfields in small towns in America, which are funded by the local taxpayers, where one company based on the airfield is running rendition flights.” The 74 photos are ordinary and banal, as Clark notes in an audio recording. They’re arranged in a postmodern tableau that is minimalist in design, though viewers can glean more information from captions in a separate brochure. One image, partly redacted for privacy, shows an American residential complex with a golf course that is home to a pilot who flew rendition flights. Another features the National Registry Office for Classified Information in Bucharest that served as a secret detention facility for the CIA. Yet another photo shows the interior of a former detainee’s home, his furnishings warmed by a Persian-style rug in the center.
Gradually I felt a chill as I sensed the immensity of the global operations that Clark and Black had sketched. If the first show evoked my reverence (for long-withheld artifacts and truths) and sorrow (for acknowledged wrongs and suffering), then the second show seemed at first to present more of an intellectual exercise.
Clark asks viewers to assimilate some rather modern photographs and consider how they were made, what they represent and add up to. Viewers’ reactions will be shaped by whether they choose to consult the information in the two brochures, how much they care about breaches of due process, and their exposure to leaked (but hard to verify) classified documents, human rights groups’ reports, and investigative journalists’ sleuthing. Fact-finding on the recent history in Clark’s show is still in full swing, whereas the first exhibition’s history is more settled.
Clark’s muted evocation of torture, a horrific development in American affairs, is hard to stop thinking about. My growing chill prompted me to see links between the two shows and explore more about their subjects. The global detention network Clark traced is his best guess. None of it is precisely known by him, me, or any other person without access to classified information. Someday we may know as much about the “War on Terror” and its wrongs as we do about the country’s detention of Japanese-Americans.
The exhibitions Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and Edmund Clark: The Day the Music Died continue at the International Center of Photography (250 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 6.