Interestingly, Stryker gave the book his full support. Perhaps he was freer to do so with the economy on the mend. But clearly he remained conflicted about how to handle the race question. In 1942, upon meeting the Black photographer Gordon Parks, who had just won an FSA fellowship, Stryker sent him without his camera to see the sights in Washington, D.C., knowing full well he’d get a good dose of the city’s segregated ways. When Parks returned, having been barred from all-white lunch counters and movie theaters, Stryker encouraged him to go back out with his camera, to “put a face on racism,” starting with the FSA offices. In a now famous portrait, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., Parks immortalized a cleaning woman at the FSA, Ella Watson, holding a mop and a broom in front of the American flag. Stryker’s reaction captured his sense of caution as well as his sympathy: “My God, this can’t be published, but it’s a start.”
During World War II, many of Stryker’s FSA photographers started taking pictures at the Office of War Information, whose mission was connecting American civilians to the war effort through radio broadcasts, newspapers, photographs, and films. When, in 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, commanding the internment of anyone of Japanese descent, Lange was hired by the government’s War Relocation Authority to document how the policy was being executed. “American nationalism became explicitly racialized,” Linda Gordon writes in Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. White Americans were taught to identify and turn in the Japanese, whose faces were presumed to signify “disloyalty and treachery.”
In Focus: Photos of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans
Lange, who was vehemently opposed to the relocation program, made some 800 heartrending photographs of Japanese American families as they packed up their farms, businesses, and houses and were loaded onto buses and trains, tagged with numbers, and imprisoned in barracks. (She was to take “no pictures of the barbed wire or watchtowers or armed soldiers.”) Clearly sympathetic to the victims of internment, Lange’s photographs remained out of public view. As Gordon writes, “she was required to turn over all negatives, prints, and undeveloped film from this work—then her pictures were impounded for the duration of the war.” By the time these photos became public (you can now see Lange’s personal archive online at the Oakland Museum of California), the war was over. As Lange later remarked: “They had wanted a record, but not a public record.”
In the end, though, censoring, withholding, scripting, and editing what the cameras capture can control only so much. Photographs, even those shot with a specific purpose, have a way of yielding surprises long after they are taken.