Cleanup effort targets thousands of tsunami-scarred images

Fujifilm helps salvage photos in disaster zone


Staff Writer

A few days after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Fujifilm Corp. in Tokyo began to receive sporadic but desperate phone calls from survivors in the Tohoku region.

They wanted to know how to clean photos covered with mud and seawater.

When the enormous tsunami swallowed towns and villages along the Tohoku coast, furniture, cars and so many other belongings were swept away. Photographs were no exception, left scattered on the muddy ground after the tsunami receded.

Hoping to come to the rescue and support the disaster victims in some way, Fujifilm launched a project in mid-March to clean up photos damaged by saltwater and mud. The company also set up a page on its website with instructions for people to clean photos on their own.

“It was about photos. If not us, who will do it?” said Yuichi Itabashi, senior operations manager of Fujifilm’s marketing division and head of the project.

Seeing that the situation was more serious than they first thought, Itabashi and two other Fujifilm officials visited an evacuation shelter April 9 in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, where muddied photos were collected.

What they found waiting there were countless unclaimed photographs.

“On average, a family takes about 200 to 300 photos a year, and over the course of 10 years that comes to about 2,000 to 3,000 photos per family,” said Itabashi. “But even a skilled person can only clean 200 photos a day at maximum. Normally, 100 photos a day.”

Collaborating with local volunteers, Itabashi spent two days just cleaning photos.

Mud stuck on the surface has to be removed with a soft brush. Each photo is then soaked in water warmed to 20 to 30 degrees for up to 60 seconds, during which further mud is removed with a brush or finger. The warm water helps remove mud and sea salt, according to Fujifilm.

After a rinse with clean water, the photos are dried in a shady, dust-free environment.

The company’s website has video clips explaining various ways to restore photos. Fujifilm has also made the information viewable by mobile phone so Tohoku residents who have lost their computers can access it.

Fujifilm’s technical team has much experience cleaning up photos damaged by natural disaster; the company engaged in a similar project after massive flooding in Nagoya in 2000.

But they needed additional research on how to clean photos covered by muddy seawater, a prospect far different than the damage by fresh water encountered in Nagoya.

Itabashi asked the technical team to come up with solutions — with one condition.

“They had to come up with methods that anyone who isn’t familiar with cleaning photos can do without the need of special equipment, because the project was going to be carried out in Tohoku,” he said.

To find out how photos are damaged by seawater, the team members asked fishermen in Kanagawa Prefecture, where Fujifilm’s research and development plant is located, to fill buckets with seawater, mix in mud and sand, and soak photos.

Finding the easiest restoration methods wasn’t easy. The team tried more than 60 ways.

“We soaked several photos together in water or placed a photo album in water” to see how it turned out, said Fujifilm spokesman Takao Inahata.

With the new knowledge at hand, Itabashi has been spending almost every weekend in Tohoku, giving advice to volunteers cleaning photos. About 30 Fujifilm employees with the same mission are also taking turns visiting about 20 towns in the region.

“This will likely continue until summer,” said Itabashi.

It will be difficult to continue the project after summer because as the temperature rises, bacteria will eat away at the gelatin silver on photo surfaces, and the damage will just be too much, he said.

Cleaning up photos is one thing, giving them back to their owners is another.

“This is totally different from previous disasters where belongings remained inside homes,” said Itabashi. “Photos are valuable only when they are in the hands of the owners. So we thought it was a part of our job to return the photos.”

Thus one thing they do is keep album covers as people tend to remember them, he said.

And photos are likely to be returned when local residents participate in the volunteer photo-cleaning activity because they know their neighbors.

“What I can say is that we definitely need more volunteers in Tohoku, not only to clean photos but also to help people there more,” Itabashi said.