The woman at the edge of the black and white photo looks overwhelmed, but the seven young children clustered near her are beaming.
Seattle photographer Irwin Nash captured that moment, titled “An Elderly Woman Poses with Children,” at a migrant housing camp in the Yakima Valley sometime from 1967 to 1976. Nash spent those years documenting the labor and life of farmworkers in the Valley.
The collection of more than 10,000 Nash images at Washington State University also shows demonstrations and labor activists leading and supporting farmworkers in their fight for better pay and working conditions, adequate housing and more. Cesar Chavez visited the Valley and Nash was there, on one occasion photographing Chavez arriving and speaking at the packed Escuelita in Granger. The emotion of the meeting comes across clearly in an intense Chavez and the somber faces of a priest and others crowded near him.
That struggle and the challenges of agricultural work comprise the big picture of the negatives, prints and contact prints officially known as the Irwin Nash Images of Migrant Labor Digital Collection. Nash also documented everyday life for the Latino and Indigenous farmworkers, their families and communities.
He photographed a bathroom sink in public housing in Sunnyside and a church outside Granger. An infant playing with two sticks and a band performing at a tavern in Toppenish. Eight agricultural workers in Sunnyside. A young Native woman from Canada, smiling as she stands in a doorway with a toddler in her arms.
They are among the people and places that inspire Lipi Turner-Rahman, manager of the Kimble Digitization Center at WSU Libraries. She needs the help of the people in the photos and those who knew them. She wants to know who they are and more about the moment when Nash stood nearby and pressed the camera’s shutter button.
“I’m really interested in the storytelling. If they remember this is me, and I remember that day, and we were doing this. This is my life story. This is how I came to be in this photo,” Turner-Rahman said.
“That is the end result we’re looking for.”
Students hired with a grant and donations have already digitized 6,271 of the images and work to add a few hundred more every week. They hope to have all of them uploaded by the end of June, if not sooner, so the collection becomes an accessible resource for everyone. Efforts to make it a more complete collection by identifying people and providing context for the photos will continue.
“It’s our mission to extend the narrative of the stories of the people of Washington,” Turner-Rahman said.
Awareness of history
Laura Solis, who grew up in Granger in a family of farmworkers, moved away years ago and lives in Seattle with her partner, Mike Fong. In their online search for a historical photo of one of her relatives, Fong came across the Nash collection early last year. At that point, WSU had digitized only 100 of the images.
Nash sold the collection to the university in April 1991 for $5,950, according to the collection guide. It came as 319 rolls of 35 mm film. Staff then created contact sheets, providing them to researchers or printing out specific photos as requested.
Though it started slowly, digitizing the collection has become an important goal. “For us, for me, it’s all about access. I just want to get the photographs out there,” Turner-Rahman said.
Born in the 1970s, Solis didn’t know Chavez had come to the Yakima Valley. By the time she was in school, none of that history was available to her, she said. She sees the Nash collection as another way of educating people about what happened in the years activists and workers united for important goals.
“We’re getting so much further removed from that time period now” and should bring that history back to the people who live there, Solis said. “I really would like that awareness for the people in the Yakima Valley.”
‘He was everywhere we went’
Lupe Gamboa of Seattle, an activist and organizer for farmworkers, was with Nash during the wildcat hop strikes in the Lower Yakima Valley that began in 1970. Gamboa grew up in Yakima County; his family, originally from Texas, came here for farm work and stayed for the higher wages, and he went to Sunnyside schools.
After attending what was then Yakima Valley Community College, Gamboa went to the University of Washington, where he became involved with the Black Student Union and activism to bring more professors and students of color to the campus. He also worked with other students to get California grapes banned from campus as part of the five-year Delano grape strike and boycott.
In the summer of 1970, some of the Yakima Valley students who had been involved in activism at UW went back home and heard from friends who were working on hops farms and wanted to quit because of the low pay. Instead they decided go on strike, inspired by Chavez’ success in California. Eventually the strike spread to 15 hop farms in the Yakima Valley and more outside the Valley, Gamboa said, adding that he probably met Nash during those strikes.
“He showed up and started taking photos of everybody,” Gamboa said. “Irwin Nash was our secret weapon. ... He was taking pictures of everything going on. It was pretty incredible.”
Nash was in the background but seemingly everywhere. At the time, he didn’t speak any Spanish, though he took courses since then and speaks it fluently.
“He was everywhere we went. He had an old car and he’d follow us around or come with us,” Gamboa said. His passion for his work came from his Jewish background and strong sense of justice. He had heard stories of pogroms in Poland, where his parents were from.
“It wasn’t just a task. It was a mission he was on,” Gamboa said.
Gamboa and Seattle attorney Michael J. Fox, who provided legal representation for the United Farm Workers union during the strikes and after, had lunch with Nash a couple weeks ago. Nash is 85 and living in an assisted living facility, said Gamboa, who has helped with fundraising for digitizing the collection.
“The sense of seeking justice has never left him,” he said. “These photos need to be publicized in the Latino community and the general public, to (show) the role that farmworkers have played in making this county and this state up in the top tier of agricultural producers in the country.”
Solis shared some of the photos on her Facebook page, and got in touch with Turner-Rahman. The women and Fong began talking about expanding the digital collection and ways they and others could support it.
“This is just a truly personal project for us,” Solis said, adding that she and Fong have met Nash. “But we’re also trying to figure out the best way to get these photos out.”
“There’s so much potential here.”
Like Solis, people who have seen the photos and know more about them have contacted Turner-Rahman, which she welcomes. She’s trying to get information about the photos in multiple ways.
“The other way we are working to identify people is to allow people on the actual (digital) platform. We’re working to see if people ... will be able to type any information about individual photos,” she said. “That will come to me and my colleagues, and then we’ll be able to add that information in. It’s much more an organic thing.
“A two-pronged approach would be the best. Definitely there are people in the community who are still living there. If we can advertise and they can go in and look at it, the more ways we can identify individual community members.”
Seattle writer Sandeep Kaushik told the story earlier this year in an article on the Post Alley website.
Turner-Rahman also is interested in finding ways to get the photos out to those who might not have reliable internet service or computers.
“We’ve played around a lot of with a lot of different ideas,” she said, noting that people can also call or email her if they hope to contribute.
Though the digitization work was delayed by the pandemic, which required some creative approaches, it’s moving along nicely these days. Students are making two copies of each image — one for the website and the other a much higher resolution for preservation in the collection’s database.
It’s ongoing work, Turner-Rahman said. Once the collection is completely digitized, staff will go back in and revamp the landing page, then start collecting narratives in earnest and potentially go out into communities to talk directly to Yakima Valley residents about the website and how they can fill in its stories.
She looks forward to that and enjoys seeing the collection move into its future.
“For me, it’s really fascinating to see our students that are working with the collection ... to see their faces when they actually are digitizing those negatives,” Turner-Rahman said. “When (the image) hits their computers, they’re so enthralled by it.
“That’s amazing. They’re looking at history and this is great,” she said.