Five questions for Elizabeth Partridge and Lauren Tamaki

In Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams’s Photographs Reveal About the Japanese American Incarceration (Chronicle, 10–14 years), author Elizabeth Partridge and illustrator Lauren Tamaki focus on the Manzanar War Relocation Center and three famous photographers’ work. Accessible main text and primary-source quotes combined with remarkably creative use of contemporary illustrations and archival photographs results in a uniquely crafted and engaging historical narrative.

1. We hear through the grapevine (your talk at ALA) that the collaboration process for this book was exceptional. Can you describe it?

Elizabeth Partridge: Writing Seen and Unseen was a very visual process for me, as photographs were integral to my concept for the book. I made a rough dummy to show the (not-yet-chosen) illustrator which photographs would accompany the text on each spread. I added handwritten notes, and on several spreads I made a quick sketch of what was outside the frame of the photograph that I thought was important to include.

Lauren took the idea and ran with it, filling in life at Manzanar with her illustrations. She did tons of research and would sometimes ask if we could substitute in a different photo or include a couple more for a photo-rich spread. Sometimes I would adapt my text based on what she was drawing or include a perfect quote she’d found. Our editor, Ariel Richardson, was totally into the process as well. Photos, ideas, text, quotes, and drawings flew around among the three of us. It was incredibly exhilarating and created way more cohesion and depth than if we had done this the traditional way.

There were also several very important times when there were no photographs. Lauren illustrated these incredible spreads, especially the nighttime uprising at Manzanar, and the way the prisoners used to slip out under the barbwire to go trout fishing. Our page count blossomed to include the incredible amount of illustrations Lauren came up with. Her art gives an energy and emotional resonance to the book that just wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Lauren Tamaki: The nature of this massive undertaking demanded an unusual amount of collaboration, as Betsy and Ariel wanted my input when it came to visuals and content. When the book blew past the original length and the vision expanded, Betsy would add connective tissue when I suggested another spread for pacing or storytelling. It was an almost constant back-and-forth, each of us responding to the other’s ideas and filling in the gaps.

2. “Everything in a picture is not necessarily true” (Tiara Fukushima, Manzanar, Block 5). How did this idea influence your work?

LT: The idea of lenses — camera lenses and the lens of the person taking the photo — was central to Betsy’s original concept. The working title of the book was “The Lens Through Which We Remember”: how does the way we document an event affect how future generations interpret it? These three photographers brought their own worldview, as informed by gender, race, and socioeconomic status. They had their own goals, sometimes personal, sometimes mandated by the people commissioning the images. Do photographs always document reality? The reality depicted depends on the person creating the image and how/if it gets disseminated. The War Relocation Authority wanted Dorothea to capture how the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people was “humane,” and they censored any images that didn’t fit their narrative. We question the truth in photos even more today with social media and the display of curated images that relay a specific reality.

EP: After Tiara Fukushima had been imprisoned at Manzanar, he saw Ansel Adams’s photographs. They were not like the Manzanar he remembered: Ansel had made Manzanar look better than it was. Tiara was cautioning us that these images were not an accurate representation of being incarcerated. People’s choices of what they want to photograph and how they shoot it — close-up or distant, low angle or high, sharp focus or soft — all influence what we see.

3. Elizabeth, as the goddaughter of Dorothea Lange, was it easier or more difficult to write her section than the other two?

EP: Dorothea’s section was the easiest. Growing up around her, I knew that her feelings about social injustice fueled her photography. I understood how important it was to document life before the incarceration, and how frustrated she was to be so tightly restricted. I also knew Dorothea didn’t approve of what Ansel had done, though they were good friends. I had to try to understand where he was coming from yet make clear to readers the choices he made. With Toyo’s photographs I wanted to highlight his courage in smuggling in a lens and film holder. I also wanted to show how later on, when he was allowed to photograph, his being an insider had a big influence on his work. You can see in his images that people being photographed know him, trust him, and are relaxed around him.

We had a wealth of images to work with. And because the photographers had such different attitudes, the photos really highlight how important it is to be a critical visual reader.

4. Lauren, with so much visual material, how did you decide what to illustrate?

LT: It was a struggle! I was learning about the Japanese American incarceration as I was researching, and whenever I unearthed another great image, I felt like I was back at square one. This is, in part, why the book expanded so much: there were too many incredible stories to tell through visuals. Dorothea, Toyo, and Ansel’s photos were a robust archive, and I would often dive into the Densho Digital Repository, which is a treasure trove of personal photographs from Japanese Americans. We could have made a whole book about the Manzanar High yearbook, which is a stunning document that combined Toyo and Ansel’s photos with all the regular high school fare. Except this high school is in a prison camp.

I wanted to create images that humanized this huge, sprawling historical event, and I used that as my guiding principle. It was important that the individuality of each person shone through, with nuanced expressions and body language. We wanted the reader to feel like they were there, which is also why we decided to utilize many primary-source documents.

5. From Lauren’s appended essay: “When a group as diverse as Asian Americans are combined into a monolith, they will always be seen as outside of the ‘real’ American experience and as eternal foreigners. Unraveling the model minority myth, an insidious tool of white supremacy, can only benefit Asian Americans and other people of color.” What are some concrete actions young people can take?

LT: I want to say, “Call out generalizations about Asian Americans! Stand up for other people of color when you witness injustice!” But I realize when you’re young sometimes the impulse is to just get through everything unscathed. I wish I’d stood up for myself more when I was younger, but bullying kept me pretty quiet. Perhaps young people can broach inappropriate or hurtful comments with friends and family, but in the end, decolonizing your own brain is of the utmost importance. (I’m still working on it.) Don’t buy the narrative people try to put on you based on how you look and where you’re from.

Dismantling the model minority myth for yourself is important and it is lifelong work. When I was young I would make jokes at my own expense as a coping mechanism and as an effort to mirror prevailing attitudes (“I’m a bad Asian, I’m terrible at math!”). If I were to go back in time, I would try and stop myself from furthering the model minority myth with such comments. When I moved to Toronto for college, I met incredible Asian Canadians who expanded my worldview and the view I had of myself. Seek out diverse groups to learn from, which may only be possible when you move out of your hometown. You don’t need to assimilate to the dominant culture to be worthy of love and respect.

From the August 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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