SHERIDAN — Seven to 10 days, the amount of time people of Japanese ancestry in the 1940s had to get their affairs in order and pick their most prized possessions to accompany them to relocation centers across the United States. They took with them only what they could carry.
Around 120,000 people — two-thirds of whom were United States citizens — were sent to the relocation centers, a euphemism that conceals the atrocities committed for several years during World War II. In reality, the centers served as de facto prisons that were established due to unfounded fears about a Japanese spy network on the West Coast working against the U.S. military.
There were 10 such places around the country, most of them in the West. One of them, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, was located in Wyoming between Cody and Powell. It housed about 14,000 people from August 1942 to November 1945 and became the third largest city in the state at the time.
A photography display, half of which depicts daily life at Heart Mountain, will be displayed in the Sheridan College Kooi Library until July 15. The exhibit compares 12 photographs taken in two different internment camps by Ansel Adams — one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century known for black and white landscape photos — and Yoshio Okumoto. Adams visited the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California in 1943, while Okumoto lived at Heart Mountain.
“There is an intimacy to Okumoto’s work that could only be gotten by somebody who was also incarcerated,” Heart Mountain Interpretive Center museum manager Dakota Russell said during a presentation Tuesday at Sheridan College.
Russell’s presentation came on the first day of May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
The display began at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center about a year ago. After its time in Sheridan, the photographs will travel to different parts of Wyoming and perhaps as far as California and Tennessee.
Okumoto attended Stanford and was working there as a biology lab assistant when he was forcibly sent to Wyoming. The rest of his family lived in Hawaii, so Okumoto didn’t know anyone when he arrived at Heart Mountain.
Okumoto lived with two roommates, one of whom was a photographer who recruited him to help take photos. The two became unofficial camp photographers and snapped pictures of weddings, birthdays and other events.
After Heart Mountain, Okumoto resumed his place at Stanford and studied the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima residents for most of his career. It was only after Okumoto’s death that some friends discovered thousands of his photos of life at Heart Mountain, which he kept in a box under his bed.
Sheridan College librarian Michelle Boule, who helped set up the display, said Okumoto emphasized people in his photographs.
“It is very revealing how the different men chose to frame their photos and what was important,” Boule said. “Even in a lot of pictures that Ansel Adams took that were mostly focused on people, there’s still the background, or the buildings are more important than the people.”
Russell said it is important to keep talking about the internment camps so that something similar never occurs again.
“We as Americans are not always very good at talking about the sad chapters in our collective life, the mistakes in our country’s history,” Russell said. “If you try to forget about your mistakes completely, you also forget everything that you learned from them.”
Two of Russell’s favorite pairs of photographs are of women sitting and people hanging out in their rooms. They illustrate the differences between the photographers, mainly that Adams was an outside visitor, while Okumoto was living among the prisoners.
“It’s a very big difference between telling the story for people on the outside versus telling the story for your own community, telling your own story,” Russell said.
The photographs depict a unique point in history while also delivering a message to today’s society.