Behind every photograph is a story, and New York-based photo retoucher Becci Manson wants to make sure the stories of disaster survivors struggling with the pain of losing loved ones are preserved.
This desire inspired her to initiate a project to retouch photos damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan on March 11, 2011.
“It’s a great way to help out — to give people those memories back,” Manson, 38, said as she recounted her initiative to restore photographs in the tsunami-hit cities of Rikuzentakata and Ofunato and the town of Yamada, all in Iwate Prefecture, one of the three areas most heavily damaged by the disasters.
“For some people, those pictures were the only thing they ever got back,” the Briton said. “When people lose loved ones, I think they realize how important photos are because sometimes these are the only tangible physical things they have left.”
Manson usually retouches photos for clients such as fashion magazines, but the project in the Tohoku region was her first endeavor to restore photos that were damaged by Mother Nature.
When she volunteered to come to Japan in May 2011, she only planned to stay for three weeks to help with initial postdisaster needs, which included cleaning homes and clearing ditches with All Hands Volunteers, a U.S. nonprofit group. She ended up staying for six months.
Manson shared her experience last June in a TED Talk lecture. She said then that looking at the piles of photos, she “couldn’t help but think as a retoucher that I could fix that tear and mend that scratch, and I knew hundreds of people who could do the same.”
Manson said the project, which was fully supported by All Hands, began with several dozen volunteers and spread through such social media sites as Facebook and LinkedIn, with 80 people wanting to help from 12 different countries.
To date, over 500 volunteers worldwide have helped retouch hundreds of photos for 90 families. She said volunteers pitched in from across the world, including the U.S., Europe and Asia.
The photo retoucher had no personal connection with Japan until the disasters but developed a “pretty emotional experience” with the local community. She is particularly thankful for a local woman who helped “hand clean” photos, a necessary step before retouching.
She said it was heartening to restore tsunami-damaged photos, especially those of weddings and babies. The task was different from her usual work of trying to “make skinny models skinnier, perfect skin more perfect, and the impossible possible.”
One photo she remembers fondly is that of a little girl in a ballerina outfit. It was covered in scratches.
“It was a really nice start to a project to realize what we could do,” Manson said, adding she and volunteers would set up stations in communities with a laptop and scanner so she could upload the photos immediately to a cloud server.
She noted the project also offered a chance for volunteers outside Japan to help, saying, “A lot of people wanted to volunteer and come to Japan, but they either couldn’t afford it or couldn’t take time off work.”
As much as she wanted to repair more photos, she was often pressed by time constraints and difficulty salvaging heavily damaged photos. For example, there was a photo of a woman dressed in a wedding kimono where the sides of the kimono were blurred. “When images like that came in, we needed to make sure we had some very, very experienced and talented retouchers so that they can be fixed correctly,” she stressed.
“Some things are delicate; the wedding kimono . . . it’s like fixing someone’s face — if you don’t get it right, it doesn’t look like it should, it’s pointless doing the job,” Manson said, adding that each photo has both a personal and historic value.
More than a year after the disasters, her photo retouching efforts have resonated through the hearts of groups in the U.S. that have decided to launch similar projects in response to tropical storms in their communities.
With Hurricane Sandy hitting closer to home in New York, Manson remains eager to share the idea of retouching disaster-damaged photos and is ready to help Japan again if she is needed.
In her TED lecture, Manson said photos are “our memory-keepers and our histories, the last thing we would grab and the first thing you’d go back to look for.”
“That’s all this project was about, about restoring those little bits of humanity, giving someone that connection back,” she said.