April 27, 2012
Paul Kitagaki's images revisit Japanese internment history


Suyematsu Kitagaki, 65, center, and his wife Juki Kitagaki, 53, left, sit with their children, Kimiko, 11, center and Kiyoshi, 14, right, at the WCCA Control Station in Oakland, Ca before departing by bus for the Tanforan Assembly Center on May 6, 1942. The Kitagaki's were later sent to the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah. Family friend Dorothea Hightower hands Kimiko Kitagaki a pamphlet expressing the good wishes of the church toward the departing evacuees. Mr. Kitagaki, prior to evacuation, was in the cleaning and dyeing business wiith a shop on Piedmont Ave. in Oakland. The family tag number is 20247 and the family was interned at the Topaz Internment camp in the Utah desert.


Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans, Agnes Eiko Kitagaki (Takahashi) Poston Internment camp, Kimiko Wong (Kitagaki), and her brother, Paul Kiyoshi Kitagaki, (Topaz Internment Camp) with their Sansei, third generation Japanese America children, Sharon Young (Wong) and Paul Kitagaki Jr. stand outside of the building on 12th and Oak Streets where KImiko and Kiyoshi were photographed by Dorothea Lange before they boarded a bus in May of 1942 for the Tanforan Assembly center and then Topaz Interment camp. Photographed September, 18, 2005. Paul Kitagaki Interment Project

How did this project get started?
After my uncle told me long ago that our family was photographed by Dorothea Lange, it was in 1984 when I was covering Gary Hart for the San Francisco Examiner and I was back east in Washington DC. I went through the national archives, which are archival shoe boxes of photographs and I found my grandparents and a picture of my aunt, too

How did you know it was them?
I recognized them. On the back of one of them - like the one of my grandparents - it had the Kitagaki name on it. It was the only one with a name on it. There's two pictures of my aunt. One had her eyes closed and one with her eyes open, but the one with her eyes closed had her name on it. It was hit and miss on the captions.

Then there's the book that came out way back Executive Order 9066 by the California Historical Society - they had a pictorial history book - I've always looked at those photos over the years. The book is totally dog-eared (from looking at it). I was always intrigued on who where those people and what happened to them. A lot of people have written books about their experiences, but you really haven't seen it related to photos that were documented by Dorothea Lange and other War Relocation Authority photographers. There was a group of them but she had the bulk of the work. Ansel Adams did a bunch of work too, but the people in his pictures were more smiling, but that's just the way he photographed.

How is your family related to the internment camps?
My grandparents on my dad's side had a dry cleaning business in Oakland. When they were told to evacuate they closed it down and basically lost their business. Their photograph was taken in downtown Oakland at the evacuation point on May 6, 1942. They were told to meet there along with other families. They were collected and put on buses and sent to Tanforan racetrack to be housed, which was turned into Tanforan Assembly Center (for Evacuated Aliens) in San Bruno. At Tanforan, some families had to live in horse stalls and they also built temporary shelters and barracks for other families until permanent internment camps were built in the interior of the United States.

My mom's family, the Takahashi's, were farming in San Jose and they ended up going to Santa Anita racetrack, which was in Los Angeles and there was a big assembly center there, too - they lived in horse stalls and temporary barracks set up. From there they went to Poston Internment Camp and that was in Arizona near the California border the Colorado River Indian Reservation.

And my dad's family went to Topaz Internment Camp, which was in Delta, Utah south of Salt Lake. Both places they said were miserable...cold, windy, dusty. They lived in these hastily built wood shacks covered in tar paper that leaked air and dust and cold.

Why is this a personal project for you?
I've been wanting to tell the story. I don't want to concentrate on my family, but I think the whole experience of the Japanese-American community - because I'm third generation and there's fourth and fifth generations now - I want there to be a body of work where people can come and see their stories so people will never forget their stories. It's so easy in history to lose that. And the history of Japanese Internment was not taught outside the west coast. People from the midwest and south and lots of people on the east coast - it wasn't taught in their history classes.

After September 11, they wanted to roundup Middle-Eastern people - the same laws are still on the books that sent my parents and grandparents to camps. A lot of those people (in the 1940's) were American citizens and then you have your rights and citizenship taken away by being thrown in a camp for the color of your skin and how you look. It's still relevant today.

Are you continuing the project and how can people contact
you should they have pictures from that time?

I'm continuing to find more people in the photographs. There's a little over 900 Dorothea Lange photos in the National Archives. Some are in the Library of Congress and there is a collection you can see at UC (Berkeley) Bancroft Library on http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/jarda/

I'm interested in any of those photos that were taken back in the 40's. They can contact me if they have pictures and if they want to talk to me. It's been 70 years and a lot of those people have passed away, but I'm still interested in their family's story because it's about how they persevered from that one event. Most of those people were in the prime of their lives and there were a lot of laws against them for owning properly, like the grandparents becoming citizens and owning property couldn't become US citizens or marry outside your race.

How long have you working on this project?
I've been photographing this since 2005. That's after I found one person to kind of start with, but it's been percolating for awhile and it took a while to find people. I just want to make a lasting body of work. If any of the relatives or their descendants want to talk I am interested in talking to them, too. Call me at 916-826-1343 or email at pkitagaki@sabee.com

What camera are you using?
I've been shooting everything on 4x5 black and white film to try to match the same feel as the photographs taken in the 1940's, because that's what those documentary photographers used back then. I have a Linhof 4x5 Master Technika field camera with Polaroid Type 55 film. They stopped making it, but the film gives you a positive and also gives you a negative. So I'm not sure what I'm going to do when I run out of film.

Paul Kitagaki's photographs can be seen here:

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