I don’t know which I was introduced to first, the work of Ansel Adams or the actual beautiful landscape of Yosemite National Park. Regardless of which came first for me, they soon became synonymous in my mind. Whenever I saw pictures of Yosemite they were by Ansel Adams, and if his name was mentioned it was always in the context of the Yosemite.
When I saw the light pole banners advertising this exhibit I was confused by the pairing – Adams and Manzanar? I couldn’t imagine how they could intersect. I made a mental note to do some research.
In fact there had been an intersection and the Skirball Cultural Center was featuring the results.
The story, as shared by the docent during the tour I signed up for, goes: Adams, on the heals of his success as a photographer of America’s National Parks was commissioned to create photos that could be used as propaganda. Adams job was to sell camp life. However, he was fired from the job when his pictures revealed a less than favorable truth. In his book, Born Free and Equal, which served as a protest, he called the camps an, “enforced exodus.”
While on the tour the question was posed, “Can anyone recall a time in our recent history where something like this might have seemed possible?” Immediately the group recognized the reference to the anti-muslin sentiment that swept over America after 9-11. The group expressed disappointment in admitting this as part of our truth , but also there was a common understanding of how we got there, wrong as it was. The country was terrified, we’d just experienced the most horrific terrorist attack on American soil of our lifetimes. The docent pressed on, “Anything more recent?” Someone blurted out, “Donald Trump and Mexicans.”
Both my parents are Mexican and I was the first in my family to be born in America. I was immediately paralyzed by the comment. Because I’m American and I learned all my lessons in English, I could never conceive of a scenario where my race could threaten my way of life. What makes this especially scary for me is that this sentiment has not come from something as devastating as a terrorist attack. It is the work of a charismatic leader. It’s so easy.
Since the day that I visited the Skirball, America once again finds itself confronting issues of our democratic ideals. In the wake of the recent Paris attacks, fear once again challenges the American way. Muslims are experiencing discrimination and Americans across the country fear opening our doors to Syrian refugees trying to escape the same idiotic ideals that lead to terrorist attacks. I don’t know what happens now, it is a scary and confusing time. I only hope that fear does not blind us to who we are and what we stand for. I leave you with this quote from Born Free and Equal:
“We must be certain that, as the rights of the individual are the most sacred elements of our society, we will not allow passion, vengeance, or hatred to cloud the principles of universal justice and mercy.”
Photography was not permitted in the exhibit. Photos included here are the work of Ansel Adams and were featured on the Skirball website and include official captioning, unless otherwise noted. Manzanar -The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams will be on display at the Skirball through February 2016. Thursdays the Museum offers free admission. For more information visit: http://www.skirball.org/