ANAHEIM, Calif. — If you want to see things differently, Anaheim resident Patti Hirahara will tell you, you have to see them through a different lens.
She and her dad Frank, who passed away in 2006, took pictures in the '70s and '80s of newly married couples. Today, she’s made it her mission to reunite eight couples with their original photo negatives.
“Once he died, it was up to me since I’m the last descendant of the Hiraharas. I had to decide what to do with them. And it’s been my whole life’s work to match people with their stories,” Hirahara said.
Photo negatives – of which she has an average of almost 100 per couple – are at the heart of her own story.
Hirahara's family was imprisoned at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming during WWII. Her father Frank was just a 16-year-old high school student at the time, but his passion for photography would see him ultimately documenting history.
“The first year they weren’t allowed to have cameras so nobody could take photographs, and my grandfather decided to build a secret underground dark room under their barrack apartment in Heart Mountain and through that they were able to take over 2,000 photographs,” Hirahara said.
Developing the photos underground was one thing, but figuring out who was in them was quite 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 individuals and families with their pictures.
“Once I gave these family negatives to these families, it’s like incredible. They couldn’t believe it. For me it’s a lifelong dream to fulfill this. I think I always want to make sure that not only is my family’s story told, but all the stories of all the other families,” said Hirahara.
Those families, like Hirahara’s, were only allowed to bring to camp what they could carry. Many of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were imprisoned lost their own history on the way to camp.
Without her dad’s camera, their stories might never have been told.
“This gives a lesson of an opportunity that should never happen again American history, where we put 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 feel now it’s 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 how we depict ourselves is how 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 return these negatives. He passed away last year, and now she’s now even more motivated to finish what they started.
So far she has yet to find her couples, but she hopes that it’s only a matter time.
“They can look back and they can see if they only had a handful of pictures at least now they have a lot more,” said Hirahara.
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 America’s space program. His hobby of photography still lives on in his donated photographic works.
His photographs have been donated to his alma mater of Washington State University. After the war he also donated a vast photo collection of the resettlement of the Japanese community in Portland, Oregon, to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon.
He also ran 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 war ended.
Patti Hirahara, who is the administrator of the Hirahara Family Collections, has donated her family’s artifacts and photographs to the city of Anaheim, the Yakima Valley Museum in Yakima, Washington and the Oregon Historical Society. She's also donated some family artifacts to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Last year, she worked with the County of Orange to coordinate the 50th anniversary of the unknown Orange County Japanese Garden and Tea House in Orange County’s Civic Center.
More information on the Hirahara Family Collections can be found on Twitter and Facebook at @hiraharaphotogs.