Photos courtesy George & Frank C Hirahara Photo Collection, Washington State University Libraries, Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections
(note from editor: This is the story of how the Hirahara family is responsible for the largest collection of photos taken of the Heart Mountain incarceration camp in northwest Wyoming.)
My family was fortunate that my Great Grandfather and Grandfather worked both in and outside of camp while they were at Heart Mountain which created cash for them to purchase items from the Sears Roebuck catalog.
Although we had a total of five Hirahara family members in Heart Mountain, my Great Grandparents had their own barrack apartment and my Grandparents and my Father lived in another one. My Great Grandparents lived in Block 21 and my Grandparents and Father lived in Block 15.
In working on farms and for the railroad, my Grandfather had enough money to buy his own photographic equipment and supplies as well as pay cash and buy a used car from Nyssa, Oregon and drive it back to
Heart Mountain in the Fall of 1943. The car which you see my Father standing with in David Ono’s documentary Witness – The Legacy of Heart Mountain is our family car.
With this, George and Frank C. Hirahara were able to take and process over 2,000 pictures in this Heart Mountain Japanese Relocation Camp during WWII and this collection is considered the largest private collection of photos taken there.
While in Heart Mountain, my Grandfather built his own secret darkroom and mini-photo studio where my Grandfather and Father took pictures and processed prints from 1943 – 1945. Only certain people were allowed to go down there and so I have personal accounts from those that did remember it.
In regard to the Heart Mountain High School photos in the collection, my Father was elected Spring ASB Commissioner of General Activities during his senior year as well as becoming photo editor of the first Heart Mountain High School Tempo Annual in 1944. In his capacity as commissioner, his duties included coordinating the student assemblies and activities on campus as well as taking photos for the annual. This gave him a behind the scenes pass to take many photos of scenes only high school students would remember. Since my Father did not charge the school for supplies and prints, he was able to keep his photo negatives.
Once word spread my family was taking photos, they were asked to take engagements and weddings, funerals, baby photos, portraits, boy scouts, as well as photographing scenes that they felt were news worthy. So far, we have the only photo of the Heart Mountain Camera Club in existence. My Grandfather charged a minimal fee for his work as well as doing copy services since there were no copy machines at that time.
Due to having this car and driving it back to Yakima, Washington after Heart Mountain closed in 1945, my Grandfather was able to bring back these photo negatives and equipment and store them in the Hirahara house my family left, in 1942, to go to the Portland Assembly Center and finally Heart Mountain.
For us, our personal tragedy was my Great Grandfather’s death in camp in February of 1945.
My Father and I worked on the Heart Mountain Reunion Committee, in Los Angeles, for the first Heart
Mountain Reunion in 1982 where our Heart Mountain photos were first used after the war. I was born 10 years after the war. Due to this fact, I have been researching the background of our over 2,000 photos after the death of my Father in 2006, I have become somewhat of a Heart Mountain historian looking through the Heart Mountain Sentinel newspaper and other related documents as well as finding over 70 percent of the people in these photos and in some cases, giving families a piece of their own family history that they never knew existed over 70 years ago.
(The Hirahara story continues Sunday on AsAmNews with a look at how the photos are used today to keep memories of the incarceration camp at Heart Mountain alive.)