Photo Essay: Yoshio Okumoto’s Views of Life in Heart Mountain

Many of the “iconic” photos of Japanese American incarceration that we are most familiar with today were taken by white photographers who worked as outsiders looking in. But, as the family collections in the Densho Digital Repository attest, there were also many Japanese Americans who documented their own experiences from within the camps. One of these incarceree photographers was Yoshio Okumoto in Heart Mountain.

Okumoto was born on the island of Hawaiʻi in 1903. He attended Stanford University and was working as a biology lab assistant when he was forcibly removed to Santa Anita in 1942. Upon arriving at Heart Mountain, he was assigned to a shared barrack with two roommates—one of whom was a photographer who recruited him to help take photos of weddings, birthdays, and other events in the camp.

In 1945, Okumoto returned to Stanford and spent the remainder of his career studying the effects of the atomic bomb on hibakusha. After his death, friends discovered thousands of photos of his time at the Wyoming concentration camp in a box under his bed.

Those photos cover a wide range of camp life. There are people at work, at play, resting in their barracks, posing for portraits, participating in piano recitals or Japanese cultural performances. The subjects appear less posed than in the more famous camp photos from Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, perhaps more relaxed and at ease to be photographed by one of their peers. Okumoto was also skilled at creating striking nature shots that juxtapose the beauty of the camp’s namesake Heart Mountain and the surrounding landscape with the harsh realities of incarceration.

While we know relatively little about Yoshio Okumoto himself, he left behind a remarkable record of life in Heart Mountain and Japanese Americans’ efforts to create beauty and retain a sense of community despite their confinement.

(Want to learn more about photography in the camps? Be sure to watch for Campu episode 4, dropping January 6th!)

Two Japanese American women posing for a photo in the high desert near Heart Mountain. The woman at left holds a parasol over her head to shield her from the sun. The younger woman at right holds a closed umbrella at her side.
Two women posing with umbrellas. September 30, 1943. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Children playing between barracks in Heart Mountain. There are four young girls in the foreground, and three slightly older girls holding hands behind them.
Children playing between barracks. April 11, 1944. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Japanese American farmworkers hoeing a field. There are four men in the foreground and additional workers in the background. Heart Mountain is directly behind them in the distant background.
Japanese American workers farming with Heart Mountain in the background. May 14, 1944. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
A young Japanese American girl stands in a field, with barracks and a guard tower visible in the background.
A young girl, identified as “Ayaho Inouye” in the handwritten caption on the back of the photo, poses in front of one of the camp’s guard towers. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
A group of Japanese American girls standing on a frozen pond in front of barracks in Heart Mountain. They are wearing ice skates and looking at the camera.
Girls ice skating on a frozen pond in Heart Mountain, c. 1944. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Black and white photo of a Japanese American man looking at a flower garden in Heart Mountain. He is standing on a small wooden porch in the front of a barrack, looking down at the flowers.
A man looking over a flower garden outside his barrack. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
A Japanese American woman is bent over some flowers, tending to a garden in front of her concentration camp barrack.
A woman gardening outside her barrack. July 26, 1944. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Black and white panoramic photo of a crowd of Japanese Americans watching people board buses to leave Heart Mountain.
People gather to say goodbye to soldiers departing Heart Mountain on buses. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Black and white photo of women wearing kimono and dancing in front of the yagura during an Obon festival in Heart Mountain.
Women in traditional dress dancing around a float structure, likely for a Bon Odori festival. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
A Japanese American child in traditional costume performing a Japanese dance.
A Japanese dance performance in Heart Mountain. Yoshio Okumoto’s handwritten caption reads, “Emi Matsumoto, Banto-Mikaru Odori, 21-30 Mess, Aug 27 1944.” Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Two Japanese American men hauling coal in Heart Mountain. One is holding onto a metal tub full of coal to keep it steady, while the other pulls the wagon carrying the tub from the front. A barracks building and others gathering coal from a large pile are visible in the background.
Two men collecting coal to heat their barracks, c. 1944. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Two Japanese American children cleaning shoes on the front steps of a barrack in Heart Mountain.
Two children cleaning shoes on the front steps of a barrack. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
A Japanese American man and child squatting and looking at rocks, with Heart Mountain in the background.
A man and child squat to look at rocks together, with Heart Mountain in the background. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Two Japanese American men resting on a couch in a concentration camp barrack room. One man sits with his feet resting on a wooden stool, while the other is lying on the couch resting his feet on the first man's lap.
Two men resting on a couch in a barrack room. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Two men sitting on a bench outside of a barrack building playing a board game. Both men are straddling the bench facing each other with the game between them, and the man at left is leaning over the board making a move.
Two men playing a board game outside of a barrack. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
A young woman posing for a portrait on the steps in front of her barrack in Heart Mountain. Her barrack unit, C, is visible on the wall next to her.
A young woman posing for a portrait on the steps to her barrack unit. August 7, 1944. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.

By Densho Staff

[Header photo: Girls ice skating near barracks. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection.]

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