Triumph Over Adversity – Paul Kitagaki Jr. and “Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit”


Junzo Ohara, Takeshi Motoyasu, and Eddie Kato

Have you seen our exhibition Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit yet? It features large-format contemporary photos taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. displayed next to images shot 75 years ago by War Relocation Authority (WRA) photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Clem Albers during World War II. Each pairing in the exhibition features the same individuals or their direct descendants as the subject matter.

Paul has spent years tracking down the formerly unknown subjects in WRA-era photos. After countless hours at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and through tips from family, friends, and the public he has found more than 60 individuals or their descendants to photograph. We caught up with Paul via email to ask him a few questions about this project, his process, and what he has learned by working with his subjects.

JANM:  What are the similarities and differences between your Gambatte work versus your job as a photojournalist?

Paul Kitagaki Jr: I’ve been a photojournalist for 40 years and have worked at seven different newspapers on the West Coast. This project has been similar to an investigative piece, taking a tremendous amount of research, looking for clues to the identities of unidentified people from over 70 years ago. Once the subject had been identified, I had to gain their trust to participate. It was very slow for the first few years. It has taken over 13 years to build this body of work, matching 61 historical photos with the same subjects today sharing their stories.

When I started with an idea of finding the identities of the subjects photographed by Dorothea Lange, I never thought I would find the amount of subjects in the exhibition and book. These are the images that have been burned in my memory when I first learned of Executive Order 9066 as a teenager in 1970.

During my first trip to the National Archives in 1984, I searched over 900 Dorothea Lange photographs looking for my family. As I looked through the boxes of images of the government historical record of the incarceration, the faces of the unidentified Japanese Americans haunted me and I wanted to know what had happened to them and if their experience was the same or different from my family. Maybe I could learn more than what my parents hadn’t spoken of.


Yukiko Hayakawa Llewellyn

JANM: In your Gambatte portraits, are you more spontaneous with your subjects or are you trying to capture an idea you conceptualized beforehand?

PK: When I photograph a subject I have an open mind of how they will be photographed. I look at the historical photograph of the subject and try to find a feeling from the image that I might be able to incorporate in my contemporary photograph. It might be the location of the historical image or something from the subject’s life today that relates to being a Japanese American. When I meet them at their home, I collaborate with the subject and ask for something that might relate to their story. I might ask them if they have anything personal they brought to camp with them. Many times they don’t have anything from that time in their lives.

JANM: Since you’re dealing with serious, oftentimes painful memories, how do you make your subjects feel at ease and comfortable?

PK: The subject is very serious, often with painful memories that haven’t been shared outside of the family and sometimes not even in the family. I explain to them how important their stories are and that they are the only ones who can create a lasting personal and historical record of Executive Order 9066. You have to remember that many Sansei, Yonsei, and Gosei never heard the stories of the incarceration and the emotional and financial toll it took on their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Many of the Issei and Nisei didn’t share their stories with their own families.

JANM: Are there any lasting lessons you’ve learned from the camp survivors you’ve photographed?

A common theme the survivors voiced is that they don’t want this to happen again, to anybody. There was nobody to speak out and defend them as they silently went into the incarceration camps. They all have an inner strength. They wanted to move on and not burden their children with the shame they endured so many years ago. We saw how their civil rights had been violated, but they triumphed over adversity, they didn’t give up, they keep trying to do their best in the most difficult situations while locked away in the incarceration camps during WWII and that is the spirit of the word gambatte.

JANM: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book?

PK: The book will be out in April 2019 and is titled Behind Barbed Wire. The 152-page hardcover book with 137 photographs will have 61 stories of the Japanese Americans incarcerated in the camps. We look at the time before forced removal, the forced removal days, and life in the camps. The book is based on 13 years of research from the interviews and photographs from the national touring exhibition Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit that has been shown across the country. We are hoping to share the book and exhibition in more places across the US and abroad.

Photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr.

JANM: What would you like the legacy of this project to be?

PK: I want the stories and photographs of Executive Order 9066 to be shared with a diverse audience who might not know what had happened during WWII to Japanese American citizens. Many of the subjects have said they don’t want this to happen to anybody else and feel the importance of sharing this story.

I am still looking for more subjects and hope to add a multimedia video component to the project. Hearing the voices will be a powerful addition to the story telling.

In many public and private schools across the nation, this chapter of American history is rarely being taught. This exhibit and book offers a visual opportunity to learn about this time in history and to educate a new generation of gatekeepers, as well as the older generations, about the tragedy of war and the importance of standing up for the constitutional rights of all people. Although the Japanese American incarceration occurred over 70 years ago, events such 9/11, the upheaval that followed, and the racial turmoil in the US reveal that the message of this exhibit is more relevant than ever. I hope that future generations will be inspired by these stories and images. Hopefully, we can get it to more educational institutions such as high schools and universities as part of the reading curriculum. Many school education materials have a few paragraphs, or nothing at all, on the factual information of the incarceration but not the human toll it took on the Issei, Nisei, and Sansei and how it changed their lives forever.

On Saturday, February 9, see Paul Kitagaki Jr. at JANM in conversation with subjects of his work to discuss his creative process, stories about the images, and the effects this project has had on those both behind and in front of the camera. An audience Q&A follows the discussion. On the same day, if you are a JANM member, join Paul Kitagaki Jr. for a members only meet-and-greet and/or a gallery tour of Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit (tour limited to 25 participants). RSVP here. 


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