Do Images Tell the Truth? Seen and Unseen Takes on that Question for Kids

Lynn: Seen and UnseenDo photographs always tell the truth about history? I believe most students will answer yes to that question but Elizabeth Partridge’s brilliant book Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyakaki, and Ansel Adams’ Photographs Reveal about the Japanese American Incarceration (Chronicle, 2022)  explores just how misleading photographs can be. Partridge presents a shameful part of American history as seen through the lenses of 3 outstanding photographers, each seeing those historic moments in a different way. Are any of them wrong? It is an extraordinarily effective way to help students look with a critical eye at images—historic and current—and one of the most necessary skills young people need to develop today.

Partridge chose three period photographers: Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams. All three took photographs at Japanese American Incarceration camps during WWII. Each brought a different focus to their work. Lange despised the whole concept of the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Famous for her Depression-era photos, the U.S. Government hired Lange to show that the program was being carried out in a “humane and orderly” way. Lange saw it differently, believing that what was happening was unfair and undemocratic. But the officials in charge disapproved of most of Lange’s photographs and from early in the project a soldier trailed her and she had to work within strict parameters. When she turned in her photographs, many of them were impounded and disappeared into archives for 50 years.

Toyo Miyatake was a professional photographer and after being incarcerated at Manzanar, he built his own camouflaged camera and took secret photos of the conditions of the camp. His photos showed much that Lange had been forbidden to photograph but those photos were rarely seen at the time and are still held in a private collection.

Ansel Adams, known for his incredibly beautiful landscape photography, was also hired to reassure the public. He came into the project not particularly opposed to the incarceration. Now close to the end of the war, there was great concern about how the Japanese Americans would be treated on release. Adams was asked to record images of hard-working, loyal, and cheerful people, which was how he saw them. Posing his subjects, Adams’ photographs concentrated on smiling people against a stunningly beautiful desert setting.

The work of all three photographers is used throughout the book but the book is also beautifully illustrated by the work of Lauren Tamaki, who is of Japanese descent. I wished strongly for more photographs to have been used but the book is nevertheless deeply effective and thought-provoking. It is the rare reader who won’t come away thinking about this book and the many issues it raises.

There is extensive and important back matter included too, with essays on issues such as the violation of rights of the Japanese Americans incarcerated, the issue of the official language used and its impact on the public, information on what happened to those incarcerated after the war, and biographies of the 3 photographers.

While understanding and evaluating images is the major focus of the book, Partridge also takes on other important issues such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the issues surrounding that action and its long impact. Seen and Unseen received many well-deserved accolades including the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal for 2023.

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