Protect Your Memories: A Cautionary Tale

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From the Ashes

“The worst part was losing all the pictures.”

This is one of the first things Jennifer Hart-Abraham said to me. She was talking to me from the backyard of her rental home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over the phone, I could hear frogs croaking in the distance.

Hart-Abraham is a friend of mine from high school. Over the previous weeks, I’d followed her Facebook posts about how her home in White Bear Lake, Minnesota burned to the ground early the morning of March 29, 2014. Hart-Abraham and her family—her husband, three kids and their two dogs—all made it out safely that cold day as five area fire departments worked to get the blaze under control. But their house was a total loss, and nearly all the family’s belongings were destroyed, including many photographs, both physical and digital versions.

“I thought I was safe, because I’d backed up many of my photos,” Hart-Abraham told me. Unfortunately, the photos were backed up to an external hard drive kept next to the computer in her home office. Everything in the office was de stroyed by fire, smoke or water damage, including the hard drive.

Hart-Abraham shared her experience online, sharing photos of the burned out hulk that had been their home, along with requests to help sift through the rubble to find things before the insurance company bulldozed over the lot. Her Facebook status updates were both wrenching and heartwarming. She’d share a picture of an ash-covered framed photo of her and her twin Jonathan as children. Then she’d post a shot of small mementos such as a pillbox or business card holder that once belonged to her mother, who died in 2002. Every photo and item excavated even partially intact was precious.

Photographs are so important to people that they’ll go to great lengths to recover and restore them after disasters such as house fires or hurricanes. See family photos carefully restored by volunteers from CARE for Sandy, an organization founded to help Hurricane Sandy survivors restore important photo memories.

Like many of us, Hart-Abraham stored physical photos in several places in her home: some were in photo albums or frames, others in a box that sat on the top shelf of a bedroom closet. As fire spread throughout the house, the top floors of the house collapsed down onto the foundation of the home. Over several weeks, she sorted through the ashes and rubble to find photos that weren’t heavily damaged by smoke, soot or water. The album that held her wedding photos was melted and warped, but some of the photos inside were salvageable.

“Go through your house right now. Take pics of your framed photos or scan them. Upload them to the cloud,” Hart-Abraham posted to her Facebook wall in April.

Since the fire, Hart-Abraham has been carefully reconstructing years of photos. Like a lot of people, she had a mix of both physical photos and copies online. Friends and family members have shared photos with her that she thought were lost forever, including important family photos or pictures when her children were small (they’re now 17, 14 and 10).

Hart-Abraham’s story isn’t all that unusual. Most of us have photos scattered across the virtual world – computers, smartphones, external hard drives, the web – and the physical world – shoeboxes, drawers, photo albums and the like. We don’t think the unthinkable can happen to us, until it does.

“I tell everyone I know to back up their photos now,” Hart-Abraham told me. “It’s become so important to me that people understand they need to take steps to preserve their pictures,” she said. “It’s so true that we don’t realize what we have until it’s gone.


Reuniting People with Photo Memories: CARE for Sandy

Over the past decade, photo rescue and restoration efforts have become a regular part of disaster recovery efforts around the world. From Joplin, Missouri to Japan, individuals and volunteer groups have helped save thousands of photos for disaster victims.

After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in Oct. 2012, New Yorker Lee Kelly wanted to find a way to help people affected by the hurricane. She volunteered with local relief groups, with mixed success. Then she realized she might have another way she could help: restoring damaged photos for families, many of who had lost nearly everything due to the hurricane.

Kelly is a seasoned creative director. She created CARE for Sandy, Cherished Albums Restoration Effort, after feeling moved by a local news story showing two unidentified, damaged wedding photos that washed ashore following the devastating storm. She tracked down the bride pictured in the photos and offered to digitally restore the two pictures, free of charge. This act of kindness, and the gratitude expressed by the bride for her rescued wedding photos, led to the inception of the photo restoration charity in Nov. 2012.

“Because whereas cars, homes and jobs are replaceable, images of mom and dad’s honeymoon, baby’s first steps and great-great grandpa’s sole surviving portrait are priceless,” according to Kelly. “Photos preserve stories! Photos foster soul and spirit.”

Working with dozens of volunteers, Kelly held scanning events and arranged mobile, in-home visits throughout New York and New Jersey, including Long Island, Brooklyn and Far Rockaway, Queens. People brought their damaged photos in garbage bags or boxes, the pictures often covered in a smelly mix of dried sewage and toxic mold. Scanning volunteers wore gloves and protective facemasks and some resorted to using Vicks Vaporub to mask the stench.

Kelly said one of the most common things she heard from families when they brought in their damaged photo collections was regret that they didn’t scan or digitize their physical photos. “I wanted to digitize them [my photos] but I didn’t. And now it’s too late,” they told her.


A before and after look at one of the family photographs carefully restored by David Kettrey, a volunteer from CARE for Sandy. Hoong Yee Lee, the toddler in the photo said: “I am about a year old and my sister just a few months in this world. We had just moved into an apartment in a leafy green neighborhood in Forest Hills, Queens. Even at that age I was involved in everything around me, including carrying bags!”

Today, Kelly and hundreds of volunteers provide free digital restoration services for families who submitted photos damaged by the hurricane. Families who submitted photos ranked them on a scale, prioritizing their most cherished photo memories. There have been 4,200 photos registered by 152 families. (Demand was so high that CARE for Sandy is no longer accepting photo submissions). Volunteers have restored more than 1,300 photos since Nov. 2012.

On average, the restoration process takes at least 10 hours per photo, but heavily damaged photos can take much longer. Many require 20-50 hours to restore. Most of the images have been scanned at 600dpi, both to give retouchers enough detail to work with and so families can print out photos at 200% for enlarged framing.

Volunteers from around the world “adopt” photos families have submitted for restoration, and they’re asked to complete the restoration within a three-month timeframe. All volunteers have to submit a test image or prior restoration samples to Kelly as proof that they have the necessary Photoshop skills to undertake the restoration work, which ranges from color correction and retouching to extensive repair work. Volunteers are instructed not to drastically alter texture, background, sharpness or other features of the original photos, or to “paint” them during the course of their restoration work.

“I remind volunteers not to ‘Play God’ when restoring photos … they shouldn’t enlarge eyes or laugh lines or remove details arbitrarily … you want to restore each photo as it was remembered,” she noted.

Kelly has made sure CARE for Sandy volunteers adopt all types of photos, not just professional portraits or popular subjects like babies, pets and beautiful brides. “Sometimes there’s really bad lighting. Sometimes pictures are grainy. But every single memory is so important to the family that photo belongs to.” she said.

Dr. Kim Lurie, pictured in this photo, said, “Thank you again for bringing back to life some of my lost memories … as you can probably tell, losing my photos, love notes, and so well preserved keepsakes from my life was some of the worst.” This photo was restored by David Kettrey of Lebanon, Indiana, a CARE for Sandy Volunteer.

Nearly two years after the devastating hurricane, restoration work continues. One of the biggest challenges is awareness and momentum. “Everyone tends to focus on the next disaster to hit,” said Kelly. Another challenge is that there are thousands of photos to restore and new, reliable restoration volunteers are still needed, as well as contributors to help fund things like CARE Packages, which provide restored photos in frames or albums to families. (Find more information about volunteering or contributing on the CARE for Sandy website).

As for the photos awaiting restoration, Kelly is determined to continue CARE’s mission. “We want to ensure that birthdays, weddings, holidays and other special moments are remembered, rather than what occurred that tragic day. So we will continue to preserve treasured memories for as long as possible.”

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