In Japan, Restoring Photos For Tsunami Victims

Aug 19, 2011
Originally published on August 20, 2011 10:55 am

Each week, tsunami survivors gather at temporary housing centers in the city of Yamada along Japan's northeast coast. They sing songs to cheer themselves up and comb through salvaged photos.

One morning, Miyoko Fukushi finds an old picture from the opening day of her daughter's elementary school. It's a formal shot of the students' mothers, wearing kimonos with their hands in their laps. Fukushi, 77, points to a younger version of herself.

"I was chubbier when I was young," she says with a laugh.

Then she points to other women in the picture, who lost their lives in the deluge.

"Kayo Suzuki. She was washed away as she ran from the tsunami," Fukushi recalls. "This is Kayoko Kon. I heard she went back home to get her belongings."

Last March's tsunami devastated the coast here. If people didn't lose their lives, they lost practically everything else — except, it turns out, many of their photos. Survivors found countless pictures strewn amid the mud and wreckage, many badly damaged by water.

Over the past several months, All Hands Volunteers, a Massachusetts-based, nonprofit, has done everything from repairing homes to cleaning drainage ditches along the coast. The organization has also hand-cleaned more than 55,000 photos. In some cases, professionals from around the globe have even restored images digitally.

Fukushi's photograph needs work. Specks of dirt are embedded in the surface, and saltwater has washed away some of the figures.

"It's a shame that damage has gone up so far on this lady, but most of her face is there," says Becci Manson, a volunteer with All Hands, as she examines figures in the picture.

Ordinarily, Manson works in New York retouching images for magazines like GQ and catalogs for Barneys. When she saw all of the damaged photos here, she saw another way to help.

Manson has traveled more than an hour up the coast today to pick up and return photos. She takes Fukushi's picture, scans it onto her laptop and uploads the image to a server. Then, she turns to scores of volunteers — from Sydney to Spain — to see who's available to restore it.

"I'll send an email out to all the retouchers and say, ' I've got loads more images for you,' " says Manson, who travels from town to town with a portable scanner. "Those who write back and say they want a new one, I'll start sending the images."

Scores of photo retouchers have pitched in to help. In all, they have fixed more than 220 photos for nearly 60 families, Manson says.

One of the volunteers is Bob Whitmore. Whitmore used to work with Manson in New York and learned about the photo rescue project on Facebook. He has already restored two pictures and is working on a third from his home in Metuchen, N.J.

Sometimes, Whitmore has to restore people's bodies, or backdrops have been blotted out by water. He uses Photoshop to restore a piece of clothing or reconstruct a room.

"Using the laws of perspective, if you've got a wall coming up and a ceiling coming over, you can kind of figure out where they should meet," he says in a Skype interview.

Professionally, Whitmore spends most of his time making a glamorous world look even more so in fashion magazines, but he has always loved restoring people's old pictures.

"It's the most satisfying work I think I've ever done," says Whitmore. "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."

Cho Kikuchi certainly did. She lost all of the photos in her house to the tsunami, but a few survived in a Buddhist temple, including one of her late father and another of her late husband.

They were worn and scratched by the elements. Manson retouched the photos herself, good as new.

"I didn't expect this would [be] so beautiful," says Kikuchi, 75, admiring the restored photos while sitting in a temporary home the government has provided. Every time she sees Manson — who is about half her age — Kikuchi invites her in for tea and snacks.

Kikuchi has placed the restored prints in a small, wooden shrine in her tiny home where she honors her loved ones.

"In the morning, I give them water and tea with ice," she says. "Then, I pray for them to please watch over me."

Manson says responses like this make the work worthwhile.

She says it's also gratifying for another reason: Photo retouchers are often criticized for distorting reality in fashion magazines.

"There's always someone who's got something to say about how thin someone is made or how flawless someone's skin is and the effect it has on young women," says Manson. "So when I set up the project, it was nice to think we could actually do something to help someone."

There's more to do. In Yamada alone, thousands of recovered photos are waiting to be reclaimed by their owners.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: We're going to take you back now to this past March when a tsunami devastated Japan's northeast coast. If people didn't lose their lives, they lost practically everything else, except for photos. Survivors found countless pictures strewn amid the wreckage. Many were badly damaged by water.

Well, since the disaster, foreign volunteers have hand-cleaned more than 50,000 photos and professionals from around the globe have even restored some digitally.

Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

FRANK LANGFITT: Each week, tsunami survivors gather at temporary housing centers in the city of Yamada. They sing songs like this one, an ode to rural life in northern Japan, and comb through salvaged photos.

This morning, Miyoko Fukushi finds an old picture from the opening day of her daughter's elementary school. It's a formal shot of the students' mothers, wearing kimonos with their hands in their laps. Fukushi points to a younger version of herself and laughs.

MIYOKO FUKUSHI: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: I was chubbier when I was young, she says. Then she points to other women in the picture who lost their lives in the deluge.

FUKUSHI: (Through translator) Kayo Suzuki. She was washed away as she ran from the tsunami. This is Kayoko Kon. I heard she went back home to get her belongings.

LANGFITT: Fukushi picks up another photo of a neighbor whose daughter survived the tsunami but the daughter's husband did not. Fukushi begins to cry and dabs her eyes with a washcloth.

FUKUSHI: (Through translator) The daughter was disabled and her husband was taking care of her. He died as he was helping her escape in a wheelchair.

LANGFITT: Neither photo is in good condition. Specks of dirt are embedded in the school picture and saltwater has washed away some of the figures.

BECCI MANSON: It's a shame the damage has gone so far unto this lady, although most of her face is there.

LANGFITT: Becci Manson works with All Hands Volunteers, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. Hundreds of All Hands workers have spent months here on the coast, doing everything from repairing homes to cleaning drainage ditches. Ordinarily, Manson works in New York retouching images for magazines like GQ and catalogs for Barneys. When she saw all the damaged photos she saw another way to help.

Manson takes Fukushi's pictures and fires a blast of compressed air to clean off the dirt. She scans them to her laptop and uploads the images to a server. Then she turns to scores of volunteers, from Sydney to Spain, to restore them.

MANSON: I'll send an email out to all the retouchers and say that I've got loads more images for you and those people who write me back say I'm ready a new one, and I'll start them new sending images.

BOB WHITMORE: I'm Bob Whitmore, living in New Jersey.

LANGFITT: Whitmore used to work with Becci Manson in New York. He learned about the photo rescue project on Facebook. Whitmore's already restored two pictures and is working on a third. In all, retouchers have fixed more than 220 photos for nearly 60 families. Sometimes, Whitmore has to restore people's bodies or backdrops that have been blotted out by water. He uses Photoshop to restore a piece of clothing or reconstruct a room.

WHITMORE: You know, using the laws of perspective, you know, if you've got a wall going up and a ceiling coming over you can kind of figure out where they should meet.

LANGFITT: Professionally, Whitmore spends most of his time making a glamorous world look even more so in fashion magazines. But he says he's always loved restoring people's old pictures.

WHITMORE: It's about the most satisfying work I think I've ever done, taking old photographs and breathing some life back into them, putting the color back in that has faded or fixing spots that have been damaged. People just light up when they see something come back that they thought was gone.

LANGFITT: Cho Kikuchi certainly did. She lost all the photos in her house to the tsunami, but a few survived in a Buddhist temple, including one of her late father and another of her late husband. They were worn and scratched by the elements. Manson retouched the photos herself, good as new.

CHO KIKUCHI: (Through translator) I didn't expect this would be so beautiful. It's so beautiful.

LANGFITT: Cho has placed the restored prints in a small wooden shrine in a temporary home the government has provided. There, she honors her loved ones.

KIKUCHI: (Through translator) In the morning, I give water and tea. Then I give a bowl of rice. Then, I pray for them to please watch over me.

LANGFITT: Becci Manson says responses like this make the work worthwhile. She says it's also gratifying for another reason. Photo retouchers are often criticized for distorting reality in fashion magazines.

MANSON: You know, there's always someone who's got something to say about how thin someone has been made, how flawless their skin is and the effect it has on, you know, young women these days. So when I set up the project, it was nice to think that we could actually do something to help someone.

LANGFITT: And there's a lot more to be done. In Yamada alone, there are still thousands of recovered photos waiting to be reclaimed by their owners.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.