Photographer documents the history of Japanese Americans

ANAHEIM, Calif .– If you want to see it differently, Anaheim resident Patti Hirahara will tell you, you have to see it from a different perspective.

She and her father Frank, who died in 2006, took photos in the ’70s and’ 80s of newly married couples. Today, she made it her mission to reunite eight couples with their original photo negatives.

“Once he died, it was up to me to decide since I am the last descendant of the Hiraharas. I had to decide what to do with them. And it’s been my whole life’s job to match people with their stories, ”Hirahara said.

Photo negatives – of which she averages nearly 100 per couple – are at the heart of her own story.

Hirahara’s family were imprisoned at Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming during World War II. His father Frank was only a 16-year-old high school student at the time, but his passion for photography eventually led him to document history.

“The first year they weren’t allowed to have cameras so no one could take pictures, and my grandfather decided to build a secret underground darkroom under their barracks apartment at Heart Mountain and thanks to which they were able to take over 2,000 photographs, ”Hirahara mentioned.

Developing the photos underground was one thing, but knowing who was in them was another.

Hirahara’s grandfather had stored the negatives in the trunk of a used car. After her father died, she spent 10 years researching and reuniting people and families with their photos.

“Once I give these family negatives to these families, it’s amazing. They couldn’t believe it. For me, it’s a lifelong dream to achieve this. I think I always want to make sure that not only the story of my family is told, but also all the stories of all the other families, “Hirahara said.

These families, like Hirahara’s, were only allowed to bring to the camp what they could carry. Many of the 120,000 imprisoned Japanese Americans lost their own stories on the way to the camp.

Without her father’s camera, their stories might never have been told.

“It teaches a lesson of an opportunity that should never be repeated in American history, where we place our own people behind barbed wire,” Hirahara said.

As Asian Americans face another hostile moment in history with an unprecedented number of recent attacks, she says society needs to learn from the past.

“I now feel that this is a generation that needs to learn social responsibility. And so for that, it’s a learning lesson and it will always be a learning lesson. And so, the way we represent ourselves is the way others will look at us in the future, ”Hirahara said.

Hirahara’s husband, Terry Takeda, was just a baby when his family was imprisoned at Heart Mountain. It was their passion project together to flip those negatives. He passed away last year, and now she’s even more motivated to complete what they started.

So far, she has yet to find her couples, but she hopes it is only a matter of time.

“They can look back and see if they only had a handful of photos now, they have a lot more,” Hirahara said.

The Hirahara family immigrated to the United States in 1907. Patti Hirahara’s father, Frank, was also an accomplished and respected electrical engineer who worked on the United States space program. His photography hobby still lives on in his photographic works.

His photographs were donated to his alma mater at Washington State University. After the war, he also donated a large collection of photos of the Japanese community’s relocation to Portland, Oregon, to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon.

He also ran the track at Washington State University and was the only minority to be elected to the WSU Athletic Council in 1946-47; one year after the end of the war.

Patti Hirahara, who is the administrator of the Hirahara family collections, donated artifacts and photographs of his family to the city of Anaheim, the Yakima Valley Museum in Yakima, Washington, and the Oregon Historical Society. She also donated family artifacts to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Last year, she worked with Orange County to coordinate the 50th anniversary of the Unknown Orange County Japanese Garden and Tea House in the Orange County Civic Center.

You can find more information about the Hirahara family collections at Twitter and Facebook at @hiraharaphotogs.

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