Three years ago, a UNC law professor came across something he never knew existed: color photographs of Japanese-American internment camps.
While working at a Wyoming museum start-up, Eric Muller found the photographs, which had been taken by internee Bill Manbo.
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Muller edited a book based on the photos — “Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II” — which was published in August.
He will discuss the book today at the Ackland Art Museum.
Manbo used Kodachrome technology, which had only existed for seven years when he photographed the internment camp.
“I was immediately dumbfounded by the idea that I was looking at color photographs shot by an internee in 1943,” Muller said.
“I was used to seeing that era depicted in black and white. It was just kind of stunning.”
After coming across the color photographs, Muller contacted the now 72-year-old son of the photographer, who spent his childhood in the internment camp and can be found in many of the photographs in Muller’s book.
Unlike government-provided photos, which were often used for propaganda, Manbo’s photos show more aspects of everyday life, Muller said.
The photos range from shots of the women in kimonos to children receiving ice skating lessons.
“They show people engaging in their cultural activities, not just Western or American ones, and many of the photographs show people basically having fun,” Muller said.
Muller started research on Japanese-American internment during World War II while teaching constitutional law at the University of Wyoming’s College of Law in the late ’90s.
While teaching his students about a Supreme Court case that discussed the legality of the internment camps, Muller decided to inform himself about the camps placed in Wyoming.
Muller is the son of a Jewish-German refugee from Nazi Germany, and he said because of his family’s history he has a personal connection with the Japanese-Americans’ situation.
“The story of scapegoating an internal minority group was a very familiar story for me and one that resonated with my own family history,” Muller said.
Carolyn Allmendinger, director of academic programs at the Ackland, said the book was a good fit for the museum’s ongoing “Season of Japan.”
“The photographs … demonstrate a real interesting combination of everyday life in the internment camps where Japanese-Americans lead lives that combined elements of what you think about as purely American and things that are traditionally Japanese,” Allmendinger said.
“It’s yet another facet of how to understand Japanese culture.”
Emily Bowles, Ackland spokeswoman, said in an email that it’s an honor for the Ackland to be among the nationwide venues for the work.
Muller said he thinks the photographs deserve a greater and broader audience.
“They help enrich an understanding of how this all transpired,” Muller said.
“An understanding of the emotional and cultural resilience of these people who were unjustly imprisoned on the basis of their race, but nonetheless managed to find ways to preserve aspects of their culture and heritage.”
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