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Restoring Damaged Photographs: A Different Kind Of Disaster Relief

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 Hands What 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 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:

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The results are impressive. This is my greatest problem when my photos are stocked for a long time….

    Yes I also face the same problem with photos stored for a long while. The tutorials i can also recommend. This was a great help for me, many thanks for taking the time to share.

wao good creativity

Nice, I’m trying to do the same thing, it’s a hard job that requires creativity and patience; but with effort the results can be really good. Maybe some day I can be good as she.

Bonjour se récit ma profondément toucher.Et trouvant une incroyable générosité de Becci
de donnez de soi se qui et rare et un grand merci pour ses familles qui peu à petit se
reconstruis et comme Becci set un travaille énorme et l’ idée de cette démarche de
bénévolat me semble naturel!!
Moi je n’es pas pour le moment les grandes connaissances pour prétendre savoir retoucher des photo mes des que j’aurais plus expérience et l’opportunité Je passe-rée une parti de mon Temp à un projet au noble.
Becci vous Etes une personnes dont J’ai le plus grand respect je me tien à votre disposition à bientôt.
ps MERCI Adobe


Wow you re doing amazing job.. once me also do the same after tsunami.. while im working in a photofinishing lab .It needs the patience n much effort Keep on doing the great work So if u guys need some new blood U can hire me up too ..

woow beautiful

Thank you for the great news .. I’d appreciate it if you kindly guide me to your Agency in Kuwait .. to deal and install the new software .. with best regards

WOW! Thanks for sharing.

nice and vrary good

Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this write-up and also
the rest of the site is extremely good.

A great and worthy endeavor !

Knowing a photoshop, but fot this kind of job I will never let myself do it always handle over professional especially for restoring old pictures.
Anyway thanks for your input.

Pretty section of content. I just stumbled upon your weblog and in accession capital to assert that I get actually enjoyed account your
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Wow this is eye opening. I always thought that the material things people lost in natural disasters were the worst things. But memories and photos of loved ones who could be gone can never be replaced. Great watch

Even with the advent of high technology, old photographs will always have a special place for people. So it is really wonderful to hear in this site the successful restoration of those photographs. This just shows that some things are very dear to us.

This is great news. Most people would hold on to these photographs because they remind them of the good memories they had before the tragedy. This is a good way for the survivors to get motivation and strenght to stand up again in these desperate times.

I think this is a great idea. Many people who have lost a loved would only have their memories to console them. These photos are part of these memories and restoring them would help in restoring the lives of the people.

Hello, i think that i saw you visited my blog so i got here to go back the want?
.I’m trying to to find things to enhance my site!I assume its ok to make use of a few of your concepts!!

Wonderful website. A lot of helpful info here. I am sending it
to several friends ans additionally sharing in delicious.
And naturally, thanks in your effort!

I think Becci has done a tremendous job. Photos are very important for its human content and as much as possible must be treasured. Through her efforts, this has been achieved. This has become possible not just because of technology but more of the human spirit. Kudos to her!

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