Consider a photographer's point of view
Photographs influence our interpretation of historic events. When looking at documentary photographs, viewers should be aware that each photograph is created by a photographer who has a certain point of view. The personal opinions of the photographer influence the types of pictures that the person creates -and these photographs in turn influence what we think and remember about historic events. In this activity, students will view two photographs by Dorothea Lange relating to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and contemplate how a photographer's viewpoint influences the types of images that are created.
Length of Activity
45–55 minutes for discussion in class
Images printed from Picture This Web site, or have students view images directly from a computer monitor.
Note to Teachers: Before beginning this activity, review the section on the Japanese internment during World War II, and share information about the internment with your students that is appropriate to their grade level. Students should have an understanding of the internment before beginning this activity.
View this Dorothea Lange image with your students. Ask your students:
- What do you see in this photograph?
- What do the various signs say?
Share the following information with your students:
The I AM AN AMERICAN sign appeared on December 8, 1941, on a grocery store in Oakland, California, one day after Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan. The owner of the store was a Japanese American and graduate of the University of California, Berkeley.
Ask your students:
- Why do you think the store owner put this sign up in his store?
- By putting up this sign, what was the store owner trying to say to others about how he felt about America?
- Do you think people of French and British descent living in America during World War II put up signs like this in their windows? Why or why not?
- When America attacked Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003, many people of Middle Eastern descent living in America put American flags in their windows. How is this similar or different to what the Japanese store owner did in 1941?
View this Dorothea Lange image with your students. Let them know that the photograph was made by Dorothea Lange in April, 1942, at a school in San Francisco, California. Lange made this photograph within a month after she photographed the storefront with the I AM AN AMERICAN sign.
Ask your students:
- What do you see in this photograph?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- This classroom is racially diverse, with children from many ethnic backgrounds. Why do you think Dorothea Lange decided to focus on the Japanese girl pledging her allegiance to the flag?
- Why do you think Dorothea Lange made these two photographs? What was she trying to communicate?
- After looking at these photographs, do you think Dorothea Lange agreed with the U.S. government's treatment of Japanese American during World War II or not? What are your reasons for answering the question as you did?
Share the information below in a manner appropriate for your students' grade level.
Information on Dorothea Lange and other photographers documenting the internment
Dorothea Lange was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the evacuation of the Japanese Americans during World War II. Because her photographs reveal their hardships-such as being forced to leave their homes, living in intolerable conditions, and having their rights as United States citizens violated-many of her photographs were never published. Her photographs often focused on the bleak and desperate conditions of the internment camps.
Another reknown photographer, Ansel Adams, also documented conditions at one of the internment camps, the Manzanar Relocation Center, located in the desert plains east of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Adams' photographs of internment look very different from the images that Dorothea Lange created. Because of his background as a landscape photographer, Adams' photographs emphasize the natural setting of the internment camp, and the majesty of the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. Adams also attempted to capture on film the strength of the Japanese Americans in rising above their persecution and creating a productive lifestyle while living a Manzanar. His images feature Japanese Americans making the best of the situation- playing baseball, the "all American sport", and tending victory gardens in the camp, among other things.
Toyo Miyatake was a successful photographer in Los Angeles when his family was ordered to evacuate. Because the evacuation was a military order during wartime, photographs were not allowed to be taken unless authorized by the military. Miyatake secretly packed a lens and film holder, and when he arrived at Manzanar, he assembled a camera from wood and plumbing fixtures. While detained at Manzanar, Miyatake secretly photographed the lives of his friends and family, providing an intimate record of life inside the camp.
All three photographers came from very different life experiences, and therefore photographed the internment in very different ways. Their photographs are three different "takes" on the internment story. The internment looks very different, depending on who is telling the story in photographs.
Have your students bring in news articles that contain photographs from the local newspaper. Ask your students the following questions:
- Do you think the photographer is depicting the event or situation in a fair way? Why or why not?
- By looking at the picture/or pictures, what do you think the photographer's opinion is about this subject? What do you see that makes you say that?
- If you were creating photographs about this subject, how would you photograph things differently?
- Internment: the confinement of Japanese Americans during World War II.
- Interpret: to explain the meaning of, make understandable, to give one's own conception of a work of art.
- Japanese Americans: persons of Japanese ancestry, living in the United States. This term may include U.S. citizens and U.S. residents.
- Point of view: place from which, or way in which something is viewed or considered, placement of camera, a viewpoint from which a story is narrated, a mental attitude or opinion.