Restoring Damaged Photographs: A Different Kind Of Disaster Relief

04-05-2013

When you think of disaster relief, you probably think of manual labor, debris removal and rebuilding. When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, Becci Manson, a professional photo retoucher by trade, joined in the volunteer effort expecting to be down in the muck, clearing debris. She ended up contributing in a completely different way.

As Becci helped clear the streets of Tohoku, working with the disaster relief organization All Hands Volunteers, she couldn’t help but notice something about the debris; buried within the piles of wreckage were countless photos. Becci, the lone photo retoucher in the group, noticed many of the photos could be easily restored using Photoshop and realized she could do something about it.

Photo: Catriona Statham

She quickly launched an effort to restore damaged photos for the affected Japanese families. She was able to recruit photo retouchers like herself from around the world.

When she returned from Japan, Becci presented her story in a TEDTalk:

Becci opened up about her experience on the All Hands Volunteers photo restoration project:

Tell me a little about your background in photo restoration and how you came to help out in Japan.
In terms of restoration, before Japan I had only done a little here and there for friends and family, but I have been a professional photo retoucher for over 20 years. I first worked with All Hands on a project in Haiti. What was supposed to be a three-week trip turned into a six-months photo restoration project.

Photo: ABC NewsWhen you originally went to volunteer did you ever think your professional or educational background would blend with your volunteer work?
I came to Japan expecting to do the normal work: manual labor, using power tools, etc. I got there fairly early (after the disaster) and in my first week, I realized the debris wasn’t just garbage, it was full of keepsake items I would hate to lose myself, including photos. That’s when I launched the photo restoration project through All Hands. Spending months in the office scanning, up/downloading and printing photos was not what I went to Japan to do, but it was still a worthy cause.

What are some of your go-to tricks for restoring photos?
Most of the damages on the photos were scratches and bits of sand. Using the clone and healing stamps in various ways, filters with the history brush and layers proved very effective and kept the process from being painstaking. Filters can be extremely destructive to detail, so knowing how to apply them in a non-destructive way was important. For the more damaged photos, the salt water removed layers of color emulsion from the original photo, leaving a silhouette-like image in just one channel. To fix this, more experienced editors could pick up the information in that channel and put it into the others in an attempt to replace lost data. They would also adjust the levels and manipulate them until the overall colors looked correct.

Photo: All HandsWhat advice would you give to those interested in getting involved, and what are the first steps in becoming a photo restoration volunteer?
As for advice, people who want to volunteer need to be enthusiastic and honest. They need to be honest about their skill level the time they can commit. Many people think quantity is more important than quality when restoring photos, and it doesn’t really go like that. If a photo is fixed, it’s important that it looks as the person remembers it looking and that the people still look like themselves. We love people who are excited to spend time restoring photos and encourage people to jump in, see what they can do, and also use it as a learning experience. There’s nothing wrong with saying you can only manage so much, because next time you’ll be more experienced you can do a little more.

In terms of first steps, you need to find an organization that does photo restoration. Care For Sandy is one that is currently helping families affected by Hurricane Sandy. If you do want to get involved, remember that you’re not only helping others, use the work as a learning experience for yourself too.

Photo: All Hands

Photo: All Hands

If you’re interested in improving your photo restoration skills in Photoshop, check out the lynda.com tutorial series, “Photoshop Insider Training: Photo Restoration.”

All Hands Volunteers provides assistance to communities impacted by natural disasters by rapidly mobilizing flexible, global volunteer workforces. More information can be found at: www.hands.org

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