After the Tsunami, A Photo Rescue Project

September 1st, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

In Japan, this project has helped inspire hope.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the images of flooded houses broadcast over the weekend raised concern for the personal property damaged by the storm. What we didn’t see on CNN were the smaller items lost in the wreckage – photos and other personal belongings – which often glean even more meaning in the wake of a storm. Yet stories of found items and recovered photos after recent natural disasters may help those who lost something meaningful in the storm find hope.

In May, we shared a story about a Facebook page that reunited Southern U.S. tornado victims with their lost photos, documents and other personal items found far from home. A similar project is underway in response to the tsunami that ravaged parts of Japan last March. Massachusetts-based nonprofit All Hands has hand-cleaned more than 55,000 photos found in the wreckage of the tsunami-ravaged areas of Japan, according to a new report from NPR.

Becci Manson, a volunteer with All Hands who typically retouches images for magazines such as GQ and catalogs for companies like Barneys, has been traveling Japan’s northeast coast for the past several months with a portable scanner, uploading images to a server available to All Hands’ network of volunteers around the globe. “I'll send an email out to all the retouchers and say, 'I've got loads more images for you,'" she said on NPR’s All Things Considered. In all, the team has restored more than 220 photos for nearly 60 families, she said.

Seventy-seven year-old Miyoko Fukushi has asked the team to restore one of her damaged photos; an image from her daughter’s first day at a new school, in which a group of proud mothers pose in formal kimonos, their hands in their laps. In her interview with NPR, she points to the friends in the photo that she lost to the tsunami: one perished as she ran from the wave, another returned home for her belongings and was never found.

Retoucher Bob Whitmore works on the photos from his home in Metuchen, NJ. He told NPR, “It's the most satisfying work I think I've ever done […] taking old photos and breathing some life into them. Putting the color back in that was faded, or fixing spots that have been damaged. People just light up when they see something come back that they thought was gone."

Whitmore explained that he uses Photoshop to restore images where clothing, backdrops or subjects have been blotted out by water. Manson notes that the work is especially gratifying for retouchers, who are often criticized for distorting reality in fashion magazines with tools such as Photoshop.

You can see the restored images before and after the All Hands treatment on the story page on NPR or on the All Hands Photo Rescue Project page.

Have you heard any great volunteer stories in the wake of Hurricane Irene? Or other stories about rediscovering memories after storms and natural disasters? Share them here.