American Concentration Camps in Masumi Hayashi’s Photoramas

41fimzxkAFLOn the 3rd of September 1945, Japanese-American photographer Masumi Hayashi was born in Rivers, Arizona, in the Gila River War Relocation Camp, an internment camp built by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) for the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Shortly after the end of the war, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she began her education, following which Hayashi moved to Florida, where she received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine arts from Florida State University. In 1982, she became a lecturer of photography at the Cleveland State University.

As an artist, Hayashi is known for her panoramic photo-collages composed of hundreds of pictures taken in a frame-by-frame manner. The slight differences of colour and tonality between each of these pictures create the illusion of the passing of time, when reassembled into a larger image. She created several series of photographs in this manner, including: Abandoned Prisons, War and Military Sites, Commissions, City Works, and Sacred Architectures. Such technique enabled her to explore the psychological and emotional connections between memory, cultural (or ethnic) identity, and place through landscape. As stated by one critic of her work: “While the form of the original is apparent, it has been changed by the hand of the artist, just as memories are altered by the peculiarities of our psyches.” (Nina Freedlander Gibans, Creative Essence: Cleveland’s Sense of Place, Volume 1)

71Llz0iAp1LOne of her most acclaimed projects is the American Concentration Camps, a project dealing with the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. This project started with Hayashi’s panoramic photo collages which show the remnants of sites of Japanese American Internment camps during World War II and were symbolic of an archaeological and historical memory. Professor Hayashi interviewed camp survivors in different areas of the United States and Canada which became part of the artwork installation in galleries and museums. She collected photographs taken by these camp survivors when cameras were contraband. Ms. Hayashi project was a search for a collective memory, having been born in the camps, but having no memories of the camps. It was also a personal pilgrimage. The 1997 exhibition of her striking panoramic photo-collages of the American concentration camps at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art was accompanied by a statement in which she explained the historical outline of these relocations and the impact they had on the Japanese-American minority:

“In February 1942, 3 months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States took unprecedented action directed at its own population. Executive Order 9066 and Civilian Exclusion Order 5 decreed that over 120,000 Japanese Americans be removed from their homes in the “western defense zone” of the United States and incarcerated in ten “internment” camps, which were located in isolated areas of Utah, Montana, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Idaho. These ten camps functioned as prison cities, with populations of 10,000 to 18,000 people in each camp.

51t9PeysBILWith the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Americans in America were no longer seen by other Americans as industrious, immigrant neighbors but were transformed into enemy aliens overnight. There were no trials, no hearings to prove innocence or guilt. They were assumed to be the enemy and made prisoners, indefinitely incarcerated because of their race. Successful Japanese Americans were informed that, according to Civilian Exclusion Order 5, they were required to liquidate all property, including homes, real estate, business holdings, and anything else that they could not carry themselves into the prison camps. They lost their homes, property, and communities. Families were separated. After the war there was a long silence because of their shame and guilt, not unlike the victims of the holocaust.

The work American Concentration Camps is about a collective memory of the camps that “interned” 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II without trial. Its memories are about the reconstruction of that time and space 50 years later. It is about the transition of the immigrant Japanese American people caught between two countries at war; people caught without a country that would claim them as their own. It is about their collective voices and memories of that displacement, and it is about the quiet silence that surrounds the land, those prison cities, and that time. Almost 50 years later, Presidents Clinton and Reagan issued letters of apology to the camp survivors that are still living. Collective voices now reach beneath the surface of the stereotypical Japanese American image of passive acceptance, “gamman” (“endurance”), “shikata ga nai” (“it cannot be helped”), and survival. Their voices call out beyond anger and memory.” (Angela Faris Belt, The Elements of Photography: Understanding and Creating Sophisticated Images)

To see the American Concentration Camps project click HERE

Feature Image: Children at the Weill public school in San Francisco pledge allegiance to the American flag in April 1942, prior to the internment of Japanese Americans. (Wiki)