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Remembering Pearl Harbor with Ansel Adams’ Collection

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This is a guest post by Sarah Haro. Sarah is working with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Tsurutani and baby Bruce, Manzanar Relocation Center
Ansel Adams, photographer

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, changed the lives of many Americans. On the homefront, one of the most dramatic changes was the transformation of the lives of Japanese Americans.

As we approach the 71st anniversary of this historic event, it is inevitable to think about the past, to ask questions, and to discuss what happened that day.  While it’s easy to look up summaries explaining the ordeal or read about how many ships were sunk and people murdered, it’s also important to take a moment to consider what those living at the time experienced.

To help learn about these experiences, the Library of Congress offers a selection of primary sources representing the events.

The blog entry Pearl Harbor: The Nation’s Immediate Response, by Danna Bell-Russel, highlights a collection of interviews done by the Radio Research Project throughout the country. By listening to the opinions and concerns of people from around the United States, we can travel back to the 1940s and experience what the attack meant and what some of the consequences were.

Manzanar street scene, winter, Manzanar Relocation Center
Ansel Adams, photographer

To learn about the experiences of the Japanese-Americans at the time, teachers can make use of the collection: Ansel Adams’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar.  As an avid photographer of the Sierra Nevada,  “[Adams’] purpose for his work  was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment…”   Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in California’s Owens Valley, the Manzanar Relocation Center was one of many internment camps that held thousands of Japanese-Americans in custody after the attack. The photographs capture the daily lives of Japanese-Americans as they persevered despite great changes.

Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading “I am an American” placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas.
Dorothea Lange, photographer

Learning about the experiences of the American people during this time of crisis is crucial to understand the event. From the collection of interviews by the Radio Research Project and the collection of photographs by Ansel Adams, students can discover for themselves how this event affected the course of history.

Teaching ideas:

  • Analyze the people in the photographs. Ask about their age, background, and occupations. What else can you learn from examining this image?  Refer to the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Photographs and Prints for more questions.
  • Students can make predictions about what will happen one hour after the scene shown in a picture, such as Burning leaves, Autumn dawn, and  explain the reasoning behind their predictions.
  • Read and analyze the text in the photographs.  For example, discuss how the message in Detail of work-offer board conveys the culture of the camp.
  • Compare and contrast prints from two or more photographers. For example, students can look at the photograph I am an American by Dorothea Lange and Pictures and mementoes by Ansel Adams.
  • Students can also describe what they see and discuss the physical environment to understand the photographer’s purpose.  Pay attention to the mountains and the land. How does the environment affect the lives of the internees? What clues are in the images, such as Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in background?

Related Material:
For  more photographs by Ansel Adams and others, check out the Japanese American Internment primary source set.

Browse through the book Born Free and Equal by Ansel Adams to learn more about the photographs in the collection and read about the history and life in the Manzanar Internment Camp.

Comments (7)

  1. The first sentence upset is somewhat upsetting, Carl Estes and Forrest Estes are two of the casualties from the USS Arizona, my family. I do not doubt that there were injustices done, but there lives continued.

    I had the privilage of taking guest on tour to the USS Arizona Memorial wing at the AZ State Capitol museum for the past 6 years and would look at their names on the causualties list and wonder what kind of men they would have become and feel both pride for there sacrafice and loss of not knowing them or their unborn children.

  2. Mr. Estes, thank you for sharing your personal experience. The losses from the bombing of Pearl Harbor were, indeed, far-reaching and are still powerfully felt today.

  3. Dear Mr. Estes,

    I am so sorry for your loss. War depraves. How kind of you to remember Carl and Forrest by being the good example that they certainly were and would have continued to be. Figuratively, they live on, thanks to you.

    Katia Janecek

  4. Sarah –
    Though I knew what you meant, I too found the phrasing a bit jarring. My uncles fought in the Pacific. One of them had a terrible time of it.
    Ricky Estes’ response is a measure of how important this event still is. And a measure of how difficult it is to craft public words that are respectful, fair, and yet not watered down. (It gives one sympathy for political candidates and elected officials who must be so careful of every word they say.)
    How do we help students to learn to speak up and to do so with care? Don’t stop writing! Learn and move on.
    – Rich

  5. You heard it here first. World War II may have affected wives who lost husbands, mothers who lost sons, children who lost fathers, brothers who lost brothers, and countless cities, towns, and villages that lost friends and neighbors, but none were affected worse than the Japanese Americans??!!
    What has happened to this country? What happened to the Japanese Americans was a damned shame, but we didn’t kill thousands of them in one day. Hundreds 0f thousands of them didn’t die in four years.

  6. We’d like to thank the commenters who pointed out that our wording wasn’t as precise as we’d hoped. We’ve updated it to more clearly communicate what we originally intended to.

  7. The original wording was more appropriate, whether “we” like it or not.

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