manzanar pilgrimage  

In the summer of 1970, while traveling to Montana with my grandmother and sister, I first encountered the massive wall of granite known as the Sierra Nevada. That image, still fixed clearly in my mind, led me back into the Owen’s Valley 13 years later and to the site of Manzanar.

On my first trip I spent five days walking and camping on the Manzanar site. Walking grids and sight lines, I found the land full of artifacts that had passed through time. The remains of old structures and gardens lay hidden in tumbleweeds and sagebrush. Acacia trees that had once been pruned with care stood silently like overgrown Bonsai. I discovered names and dates inscribed in concrete lying quietly as messages and memorials to a hidden past.

One late afternoon on November 28, 1983 I noticed the remains of a bent flagpole. My tripod was set with the camera in place as a couple walked toward me. They shared a story that had happened 40 years earlier, when as high school sweethearts they had been photographed in front of that same flagpole. They asked if I would make a photograph of them on the site. I was happy to help and I made one picture with their camera and one with mine. Wanting to send them a print from my camera, I asked for their address. The gentleman gathered his wallet and produced a simple but elegant card. It read, Toyo Miyatake Studio, Archie Miyatake. We said goodbye and I wished them a safe trip home. I returned to my camera. Beneath the dark cloth, I refocused on the flagpole image and in the darkness I realized the gift of that moment.

It is a humbling experience to make the pilgrimage to the site of the Manzanar Internment Camp. Like most Americans, I have never faced the loss of my civil liberties, been denied autonomy or had my loyalty to our country questioned. Over the last 25 years I have made many pilgrimages to Manzanar. I am grateful to all the people who have shared their “camp” stories with me. Through those encounters my own understanding has deepened. Their stories are both painful to share and difficult to absorb. Those experiences filter into my photographs and, once understood, have given me greater insight into cultural processes, identity, and racism.

This photography project is a work in progress. As a photographer I felt the need to create a visual record as the Japanese American community struggled to preserve the site, its history and legacy. My primary role is that of a witness. The process of witnessing the pilgrimages over many years has given me the time to attempt a holistic photographic document. Within this body of work I hope to make visible those brief moments when the human spirit is revealed. I have discovered that some of the people I have photographed do not see themselves or their actions as historically significant and rarely worth photographing. I hope some of their modesty has been instilled in me.

My creative process combines observation, analysis, synthesis and action. As new images are made the body of the work will be re-synthesized. With each evolution, the inferences grow in complexity and more questions emerge. As I have strived to communicate a human story, the issue of internment and the Japanese American experience continually expands the project’s complexity. The images appear simple and traditional, but with greater study their inferences, cultural symbols and context will challenge a viewer to discover new meanings.

My decision to create a web site came from the growing feeling that I have a responsibility to share this work. Until very recently, I had never thought that my photographs had historical value. My opinion changed as I searched through both contemporary and historical images of Manzanar. In looking at the images made at the time of internment, I discovered that Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake and Ansel Adams had photographed some of the same people I photographed in the 1980s. These connections were purely by chance, but I willingly accept them.

When I first contacted the Manzanar Committee Sue Embrey encouraged me with the project. Since the annual pilgrimage lasts only a few hours, I knew it would take many years to make the images for the foundation of this work. As the event grew from the intimate Manzanar Pilgrimage and Potluck of the early 1980s to the pilgrimages we experience today, the task of identifying and gathering contact information has grown. After the 2007 pilgrimage I decided to try to contact the people in my photographs. Most of my free time last year was spent in research and correspondence. I have attempted to identify and contact every person photographed on this site. I still have not been 100 percent successful with this effort. I am hopeful that any person that remains unidentified will in time contact me.

Many people over the years have shared their stories with me. The act of sharing one’s life experiences requires trust. I was extended that trust when Sue Embrey gave me permission to photograph at the pilgrimages. I hope that the photographs presented here will, in a small way, honor the internees’ and their family’s commitment to pass on Manzanar’s human legacy. My life has been shaped and transformed by those acts of sharing and I am forever thankful.



Mark Kirchner