February 19th is the annual Day of Remembrance when we reflect on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The day this year marks the 67th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Roosevelt. With that Order nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were citizens by birth, spent the war years imprisoned for no crime other than ancestry. Without due process, Japanese Americans were denied the very basic civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S.
Constitution. The removal of civil liberties extended to the right to photographic representation as well. Cameras were classified as weapons, in the same category as guns, bombs, and ammunition and were prohibited.
How would you react if you had your camera taken away from you? Government officials believed that they were discouraging sabotage but at the same time they took away the ability for Japanese Americans to represent themselves photographically. During the years in the camps, significant rites of passage escaped photographic memorialization, and Japanese Americans were denied the ability to verify their mistreatment or harsh conditions.
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. As the example of the prohibition of cameras in the World War II camps reminds us, to take the right to photographic representation away is tied to the deprivation of other citizenship rights, even if there is not a specific right to photograph in the Constitution. Next time you pick up your camera or post a photograph online consider the power you have to represent your world the way you see it.
Jasmine Alinder is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of the new book Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Incarceration.