August 5, 2010
By Dominique Fong, Voices
As a child, photographer Stan Honda listened to his father’s stories about imprisonment at the Poston, Arizona internment camp 3. Honda heard his father, aunts and uncles reminisce about Thanksgiving and Christmas meals and the sand that incessantly trickled into the living area, memories that moved him to embark on a personal project to understand his family’s past and a shameful part of American history.
“They talked a lot about it,” said Honda, a sansei, or third-generation Japanese American. “They talked about the harsh conditions, how there’s just sand that came into the barracks, which drove some of them literally crazy. There was sand through the floorboards and dust everywhere, 24 hours a day.”
Over a period of five years, Honda, now 51, and his older sister journeyed to 9 of 10 internment camps, where thousands of Japanese Americans had been incarcerated during World War II under an executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1994, Honda came across an announcement from the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) that a group of volunteers planned to dismantle barracks at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, internment camp and reassemble them at the museum parking lot. Honda, who had been working for Newsday in New York at the time, thought it would be a timely opportunity to travel to a camp he had not yet visited and snap photos of the museum project.
“It was something that would probably happen once, and it probably wouldn’t happen again,” Honda said. Honda and the volunteers traveled halfway across the country that fall, eager to see the barracks that were still in good condition.
A preservation architect accompanied the group and advised them on how to take carefully take apart the interior and exteriors of the fragments so that the relics could be reconnected without being damaged. While the volunteers, some of whom had once been held at Heart Mountain, took the barracks and sent them off to Los Angeles on a flatbed truck, Honda was busy taking pictures.
“Everything caught my eye,” Honda said. “Historically, I think it was important to document the project because of the rarity of a whole barrack and the volunteers who were there.”
Some of Honda’s photos were included in a book by Sharon Yamato, who had also attended the museum project to interview people and document the process.
Honda, Yamato and several of the volunteers reunited Monday at a JANM exhibit named after Yamato’s book, “Moving Walls: Preserving the Barracks of America’s Concentration Camps,” where Honda led a presentation about the project.
Yamato said that the tearing down of the barracks was a breakthrough for her work, and she wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times about the experience. She admired the way that Honda remained discreet about taking photos with the Leica black and white film camera he carried.
“He’s very low-key,” said Yamato. “He’s always in the background. He captures things without you even noticing that he’s taking pictures.”
Yamato’s favorite photo is a portrayal of her cousin, a shadowy figure among the play of light and dark hues. She appreciated that Honda was able to encapsulate on camera how men, laboring and sweating even in their 60s and 70s, were so emotionally invested. “He captures personality, not just scenery or background,” said Yamato. “He really captures the essence of people.”
Honda said he even braved his fear of heights to climb to the top of a building, where from his bird’s-eye view he could see over the camp.
Honda learned photography in high school and worked for the campus newspaper at the University of California, San Diego. He later worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. In 1989, he moved to New York, where he has for the past 7 years worked as a staff photographer for Agence France-Presse.
“I think telling people’s stories and communicating visually what is happening in the world is the real job of photojournalism,” said Honda. “Showing viewers how people live.”
Honda’s father, Masami Honda, was 24 when he entered the Poston camp block 330-6-C. The oldest son in the family, the elder Honda would travel by train to visit his own father, [Hachirozaemon Honda] who was a first-generation immigrant arrested by the FBI and detained in a different location [Department of Justice internment camp at Santa Fe, New Mexico].
Masami Honda (Poston block 330-6-C) was also the youth sports director in his camp and directed sports teams, including baseball. His openness about his experiences were a way of educating his children about a period in American history when racial prejudice against Japanese Americans was supported by the government.
Stan visited the Poston site three times, once with his father and two sisters at a ceremony, a reunion with friends from the war. Honda nearly reached his goal of visiting all 10 camps. The final one, the Gila River War Relocation camp, was too difficult to access because it is on an Indian reservation, Honda said.
Honda said he was glad to have participated in the JANM project, which is still on public display today. “To me, it seemed like it was a unique project,” said Honda. “I don’t think anything like this had been done before in the Japanese American community.”