Thomas W. Parker

Name Thomas W. Parker
Born 1907
Died 1976
Birth Location Leadville, CO

After hiring a number of photographers in 1942 to document the initial process of the removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans, the War Relocation Authority decided to set up its own full-time photographic operation. When the WRA Photographic Section (WRAPS) office was established in Denver, Colorado, in 1943, Thomas "Tom" W. Parker (1907–76), a career U.S. government employee, was selected to set up and direct it. While director, Parker produced a large number of still images and was also responsible for making films for the WRA.

Thomas Wesley Parker was born in Leadville, Colorado, in 1907. Parker attended Northwestern for two years, studying journalism, marketing, and advertising among other subjects. In the heart of the Great Depression, Parker returned to his native state where he found employment with the Works Progress Administration. He was an institutional photographer for the WPA between 1935 and 1938. Subsequently, Parker became the "information officer" for the Colorado branch of the Federal Works Agency, a position he held between 1938 and 1942.

In late 1942, Parker was transferred to the WRA and charged with setting up and running the WRA's Photography Section in downtown Denver, Colorado. Parker's operation coincided with the WRA's shift from confining Japanese Americans to determining who was loyal to the USA, and encouraging such persons to apply for jobs and leave the WRA camps even while the war was still in progress. Responding to this programmatic change, the mission of the WRAPS shifted from documenting the WRA camps themselves, to taking portraits of Japanese Americans who had resettled to different regions of the United States, east of the military zones on the West Coast, who had ostensibly made a satisfactory economic and social adjustment to the larger society.

As head of the WRAPS, office memos make it clear that, along with taking photographs, Parker was in charge of bureaucratic tasks within the office. He managed the budget and personnel, and communicated with the Reports Office back in Washington, D.C. about shoots and itineraries. Because he was interested in filmmaking, Parker also branched out and helped produce three WRA-oriented documentaries that appear to have been fairly widely shown before the end of the war.

Although WRAPS was effectively carrying out its mission, Parker decided that he preferred to make war-industry related films for the armed services. For reasons that are not entirely clear, he elected to leave WRAPS to do film work for the navy, but then decided to re-join WRAPS again in late 1944.

After closing down the WRAPS office in Denver, Colorado, Parker went on to have a lengthy career with the State Department. Successively, he worked in the Middle East and then in Southeast Asia as a photographer and an "information officer."

Probably the only one of the pre-WRAPS and WRAPS photography staff to go on to have a professional career with the U.S. government, Parker's work is probably best characterized as institutional photography: he understood, and was skilled at adapting the WRA's point of view, and taking photos and making films that expressed that organization's perspective. In that same sense, Parker's career entails a shift from the socially-progressive government photography of Roy Striker's Farm Security Administration, and an explicitly institutional style of photography that was used by agencies like the WPA, the FWA, and then the WRA, to garner public support for large-scale governmental policies and projects.

Concomitantly, Parker's documentaries are often regarded today as propaganda films. Although it is clear that Parker thought the point of view expressed in his films was progressive, the narratives feature hopelessly uncritical, idealistic renditions of the WRA's perspective on the mass removal, incarceration, and resettlement of Japanese Americans during World War II. In this sense, they are useful for their footage, and useful to illustrate the worst elements of paternalism and condescension toward Japanese Americans who were subject to the WRA's management ideology.

After a long career in the foreign service, Thomas W. Parker passed away in 1976 in Sun City, Arizona, at the age of 69.

Authored by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi , University of California, Los Angeles

For More Information

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo, with Kenichiro Shimada. Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens: Hikaru Carl Iwasaki and the WRA's Photographic Section, 1943–1945 . Photographs by Hikaru Carl Iwasaki. Foreword by Norman Y. Mineta. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2009.

Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives (JARDA).

Last updated Feb. 6, 2024, 3:11 a.m..