These three Japanese American women are just arriving to Lone Pine, California (May 1942, photographer unknown). They’re walking to a bus that will take them to Manzanar internment camp. There is so much to love about this photograph: the saddle shoes and socks combination, the headscarf, the wide-legged trousers, and, oh yes, the suitcases (including that makeup case!). More striking, still, are the huge smiles.
“For the camera, you smile”: Feeling Political
The first time I saw photographs of my family at Camp Pendleton (a refugee camp for Southeast Asians following the Viet Nam War), I was really confused by how happy everyone looked. Though Southeast Asian refugees were definitely not “interned” at these refugee camps, national politics and geopolitical forces compelled them to leave their homes in much the same way Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes. So why did everyone look so happy? When I was about 10, my mom explained it this way: “Of course we were sad and worried but - for the camera, you smile.”
Many of the Japanese American internees photographed by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange must have felt the same way. According to Sue Kunitomi Embrey the chair of the Manzanar Committee, Adams hoped to capture the despair of camp life in order to stir some public sympathy for Japanese Americans but was frustrated by all the primping and posing Japanese Americans did when he was photographing. (Recall that internees were not permitted to bring cameras of their own into the camps).
While I don’t take lightly this decision to include photographs of internment life (or refugee life) in this fashion archive, I’ve decided to include some that depict not only the rich fashion sensibilities of Japanese American women in the 1940s but also a style of strength and resistance often captured in the best fashion photographs. Rather than glossing over the ugly realities of racism that led to this serious infraction of civil rights, I hope that images of smiling and fashion-conscious Japanese American women like the three here adds to and deepens our appreciation of the small acts of feeling, creativity, and resistance that happen everyday in spite of huge limitations.
In an act as seemingly trivial and trite as smiling for the camera, these women interrupt and take some control of the historical, political, and visual frames through which they’re being viewed. And in this way, these kinds of photographs exemplify precisely the goals at the heart of this alternative archive: to present an alternative mode of historical knowledge that is based not simply on an archive of facts (e.g., dates, designers, and design styles) but rather - to adapt a phrase from the queer performance scholar Ann Cvetkovich - one based on an archive of feelings.