Whispered Silences: Japanese Americans and World War II

By Joan Myers; Gary Y. Okihiro | Go to book overview
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Photographer's Note Joan Myers

This work began in 1981, when I was on a family vacation and drove north from Los Angeles, through the Mojave Desert and along the eastern flank of the snow-covered Sierras. Two pagoda-roofed buildings caught my eye, and I pulled off the busy highway. In a parking area I read a small historical plaque identifying the site as the Japanese relocation center of Manzanar. Curious, I peered into the small stone buildings that I learned were entry stations for the camp. Then, for an hour or so, I walked in the chilly December wind treading my way carefully through the debris littering the grounds of the camp.

In the months that followed, I often recalled that walk. When the opportunity arose to visit southern California a year later, I returned to Manzanar, this time with my 4 x 5 view camera. I explored. Scratched into buckled ribbons of sidewalks I found the Japanese names of the internees who had mixed and poured the concrete. Nearby were crumbling barracks steps, low stone walls, the footings for guard towers, and a cemetery, each grave outlined with round stones and marked by a Japanese name. Empty ponds and extensive rock work from abandoned gardens lay partially obscured by dirt and fallen branches. Here in the Owens Valley, sucked dry in the 1920s by a thirsty Los Angeles, I could not tell if the trees that I saw, planted by camp internees, were still alive or merely skeletons standing desultory watch over the sites of the former barracks and gardens. Beyond the cement rubble, the rutted camp roads, and the parched bareness of the Owens Valley floor rose Mount Williamson and the sheer snow-covered eastern slope of the Sierras.

I wandered for several hours, taking it in, trying to understand, and, occasionally, taking a photograph. Although no barracks buildings remained, the ground was littered with small bits of construction debris and household trash: nails, scraps of pine lumber, tin cans, glass and china shards. Once, as I looked down to place the legs of my tripod, I noticed a piece of gray rubber half buried in sand. I reached down, pulled it carefully from its decades-old resting place, brushed off the dirt, and stared at a 1940s-vintage toy car, the rubber cracked from long exposure to the


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