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Why Do Wal-Mart (and Many, Many Others) Sell Photos of Japanese Internment?

By Dan Hamamura | Think Pieces | November 15, 2017 | Comments ()

By Dan Hamamura | Think Pieces | November 15, 2017 |


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So a couple days ago, the internet discovered that something was afoot over at Wal-Mart:

That’s a photo of a young Japanese-American child, waiting to be sent to an internment camp, being sold as artwork. You know, perfect for your foyer or wherever you like to post images of people enduring shameful treatment at the hands of their government.

Wal-Mart ended up removing a few of the listings, but as of now there are still a number of pieces available for sale on their site:

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My initial reaction was to burn ever so bright with anger and rage-type a piece about this. But I calmed down long enough to decide that I wanted to know a little more about what the hell is going on. And it’s left me in a weird place.


First, a little background on the photos themselves. In 1943, Ansel Adams was invited to the Manzanar War Relocation Center (which is a very nice way of saying concentration camp) to photograph the Japanese Americans who had been relocated (forcibly uprooted from their lives, homes, and property under the guise of protecting the country) there. The photos he took were stark and beautiful and provide a tiny glimpse into the everyday lives of the residents (prisoners).

One thing that is crucially absent from the photos: any sense that the people there were being held in the camp: Adams was not allowed to photograph the guards or the barbed wire fences, for example. And the photos documenting life in the camps depict a normalcy that can, without context, sanitize the reality of what was done to the thousands of Americans and legal immigrants who happened to be of Japanese ancestry.


These photos are in the public domain (Adams gave the negatives to the National Archives), which means that they are available to everyone, for free, even as incredibly high-resolution scans. But it also means there is nothing to prevent anyone from using these images for whatever purpose they desire, including reproducing them as high-quality prints, for sale as “art”.

Wal-Mart is not the only culprit here - for that matter, even the prints on their website are being sold by a third-party, not Wal-Mart themselves. And a quick search shows that there are MANY other shops online selling these prints as well.

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Further investigation into many of these storefronts also shows that they are… well, they’re not necessarily providing the appropriate level of context for the photos, even as they show you how nice they might look in your living room:

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Here at another reseller, the listing contains errors that show that it was almost certainly procedurally generated by a bot (see if you can find the typo!):

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This feels like it may be another case of algorithms run amok (similar to what’s happened over at Youtube, which Kayleigh and Courtney have both written about, or the mystery of the terrifying phone cases over at Amazon), given the similarities in the listings (and specifically, the similar lack of context about what is depicted) from so many different storefronts. But even if that is the what happened, the fact remains that there are very real companies who stand to profit from these prints, if and when they are purchased - and since it appears that these images are printed on-demand, there’s essentially no financial downside.

Unless we rage.


There is a certain level of outrage that can, and perhaps should, be mustered at the commodification of these images, and the way that have been so nakedly turned into a bit of photographic nostalgia, almost certainly trading on the Ansel Adams name to improve the desirability of these works. There seems to be a certain cynicism at work here, a belief that the Adams name will let people overlook the history of the photos (it is also telling, to me, that the Adams estate does not appear to sell any of these images themselves).

There is also an argument to be made (and was, by one of the sellers who was gracious enough to reply to my inquiries) that there is value in the preservation and proliferation of these photos; that the story of Manzanar and the incarceration of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II remains one that too few people know.

The reply I received was gracious, thoughtful, and genuine. But I disagree with the defense.

Because without the historical context, without greater detail or understanding of what is being presented (the kind of understanding that may come in, say, a book or museum exhibit), the images are, to me, robbed of their true power. Without that understanding, the photographs become a flat, neutered portrayal of Americana, a sanitized prop that depicts history as a quaint, painless time, when everyday folk did everyday things like go to school and church and farmed and weren’t things just so much simpler then.


My personal connection to story of internment (and thus, undoubtedly, my bias) is strong, because of my own background. My great-grandfather was taken from his home and sent to an internment camp, leaving my great-grandmother to take care of their eight children (including my grandfather) alone, an event that directly affected the trajectory of my family’s history. Friends of mine also had parents or grandparents or great-grandparents sent to the camps, and this is a moment in history that should not be forgotten; it remains one of the most influential events on my life, even though it happened decades before I was born.

It’s also a story that many people still do not know, or perhaps, only know in the haziest of details. Which is why these photos, imperfect as they are, remain an important historical document, an important guide to what we once allowed to happen, and what we should not allow to happen again.

But placing these photos into a purely commercial context, without regard or respect for the pain and suffering and history that they represent, feels like a problem that will only get worse as these sorts of algorithm-generated products become more and more mainstream, and we lose that association between the history these images represent and the images themselves.

The seller I spoke to suggested that he believes that were someone to purchase one of these images of Manzanar, they would likely have a good reason to do so; some amount of knowledge or connection to the story, one that would make it a conversation starter in their home, an opportunity to educate.

I just wish I shared his optimism.


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