Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Photographer creates a living link to history

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

One woman emailed after an exhibit in San Bruno. Some have called after seeing photos online. Another volunteered information during a casual conversation.

In bits and pieces, Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. continues to find survivors and family members of Japanese Americans whose lives in internment during World War II were documented by photographers, including Dorothea Lange for the War Relocation Authority.

His goal? To create mirror images of the original photography, showing strength and perseverance. "I want their faces and voices to reach out and tell their stories," he said.

It is painstaking, and personal, work.

Kitagaki learned in 1984 that Lange had photographed his father, aunt and grandparents as they left Oakland for their detention. In 2004, he began working on the project. In 2005 he interviewed his aunt.

"At the time she was failing in her health," Kitagaki told me last week as we chatted in the newsroom. "She's the first one I interviewed, on a cassette recorder. I still haven't transcribed that interview yet. She's since passed."

The Bee published part of Kitagaki's work Feb. 19 on the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the order signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that forced the internment of almost 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Like Lange, Kitagaki is a skilled photographer whose images stir emotion. No wonder then that as word spread of his online photo gallery and related work at, more than 23,000 readers have looked through the photos and read the stories. Or that Kitagaki continues to make progress identifying the unnamed subjects in Lange's work.

In the seven years or so before publication in The Bee, Kitagaki had interviewed and photographed 31 people from 20 historic photos, and identified the subjects of two other photos. With the power of The Bee's readership and online reach, in less than three months he's discovered the identities of 15 more people in 10 more photographs.

Lester Ochida of Sacramento saw the photos at and called to say that he and his sister, two cousins and two brothers were the children photographed in a scene on Florin Road. All but one cousin are still alive, and Kitagaki will re-create the photograph at the same location.

Steve Kawai of Sacramento called to identify his father, Frank Kawai, in a photograph of a parade at Tule Lake.

Kitagaki found another survivor Feb. 23 when he attended a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in San Jose to honor veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and others.

"I went down to San Jose because my uncle was supposed to go to the ceremony," Kitagaki said. "The woman who was in charge of the event, I was telling her about the project. Her family knew who this girl (in one photograph) was. Serendipity."

Late last month Kitagaki's photography went on exhibit at the San Bruno BART station, along with photos from Lange shot at the Tanforan Assembly Center. That center is where the BART station now sits, but in 1942 it was where Japanese Americans were temporarily housed in horse stalls and barracks before heading to permanent internment camps.

The exhibit, "They Wore Their Best The Japanese-American Evacuation and After" will be on display through this month. The day it opened, U.S. Rep Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, spoke at the ceremony and promised to take the exhibit to Washington, D.C.

While that promise alone energized Kitagaki, a little happenstance made the event even sweeter. Dorothea Lange's granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, filmed the event as part of a documentary on her grandmother. She later spent about an hour interviewing Kitagaki.

"She was out here filming for nine, 10 days, had interviews set up. I was kind of a wild card, really," Kitagaki said. "I'm really honored to be asked to talk about (Lange's) work and my work and what my project is."

Next step for Kitagaki? He is scheduling interviews and thinking it's time to do the work for a grant himself, all of which should result in a book. He'd like to get his work in a museum. The grant would pay for travel to interview subjects, research, transcription, production costs and the scanning of negatives.

Yes, negatives. In this digital age, Kitagaki continues to use Polaroid film and a Linhof large-format camera.

"I've been shooting everything on 4-by-5 black-and-white film to try to match the same feel as the photographs taken in the 1940s, because that's what those documentary photographers used back then," Kitagaki said.

The film produces an instant black-and-white print, and an instant negative. It no longer is made, so Kitagaki scours eBay to find sources.

"All of the film is several years old and well past its expiration date," said Mark Morris, The Bee's senior editor for multimedia. "Like the internees, it's only a matter of time before the film is gone."