In Japan, Retouching Memories

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Becci Manson is used to working with valuable photos.

The freelance retoucher has worked with agencies like Droga5, EuroRSCG, and magazines like GQ, Harper's Bazaar on photo spreads filled with expensive things.

But when she went to volunteer in Japan after the country was devastated by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, she found herself working with pictures that were perhaps the most precious ones ever.

Manson spent six months hand cleaning and digitally retouching thousands of photos that had been damaged in the disaster last year -- photos that represented irreplaceable memories for many of the victims. She also created an online network of retouchers from all over the world, Photo Rescue Japan, to whom she emailed damaged pictures so they could be digitally retouched, printed, and returned to their owners, good as new. Recently, the effort earned Manson and her team a Dewey Winburne Community Service Award at SXSW in Austin, honoring outstanding community activists working in the digital world.

A Need Discovered
When Manson set out for Japan in May 2011, she had no idea that such a need for retouched photos even existed. She had joined the volunteer team from Carlisle, Mass. non-profit association All Hands on its trip to Japan, having previously worked with them in Haiti in 2010. Originally, she was slated to be in Tohoku for three weeks, helping with clearing debris from ditches and drainage canals, cleaning and gutting homes and schools. But people were bringing in cameras and photographs they found among the piles and piles of debris everywhere. So Manson started to hand-clean them.

When Manson realized how much there was to be done, she got on Facebook and asked if there was anybody who might want to help. "Overnight, there was tons of enthusiasm," she said. "I really realized then what we could do."

In June, Manson returned to the U.S., grabbed some equipment, made a few more contacts, and went back to Japan, deciding that she would stay until All Hands had to pack up and leave.

Then, the work really began.

Every morning, Manson would check go through the hundreds of emails coming in from her global team of volunteer retouchers. Then, she'd get the team going out to nearby towns to salvage photos ready. Some days, Manson and her assistant/translator would go out and base themselves in a library with their laptops and scanners as a hastily put-together retouching clinic. In towns like Yamada, which was 90% damaged, they'd base themselves out of coffee shops or shelters.

"Some of the old ladies had never seen a scanner before," she said. "Having the portable equipment was incredibly important."

Trust Issues
Trust was a major issue for people submitting photos. In the more remote areas, Manson was the first "gaijin,' or non-Japanese they had seen. She also didn't speak the language. "They had lost so much that giving up their precious photos to some gaijin would be too difficult," said Manson. "So we did it on the spot and gave the pictures back."

Manson and her team used the local press to get word out about the retouching clinics. When the national and international press got the story, volunteers started emailing. "The day NPR covered us, we had 140 emails that morning," said Manson.

The hardest part, she said, was the rare occasions she had to turn away clients because their photos were beyond salvaging. One man, a local photographer, brought in pictures he had taken for his client. "When I told him I couldn't help, he was devastated," said Manson. "He had to go back and tell his client that there was nothing that could be done. It broke my heart."

When Manson left Japan in November, 135,000 photos had been hand-cleaned. About 87 families have been helped with digital retouching, which is still continuing. Some pictures take months--one retoucher has been working on a picture for nine months now.

One of the hardest photos to retouch was one of the first brought in, a picture of a woman in a bridal kimono, said Manson. The detail on the kimono was, for the most part, lost, and had to be hand drawn--a painstaking job, considering how elaborate the fabric was.

Manson left her canning and printing equipment behind in Japan to be used by volunteers locally. Back in the States, she remains involved, helping organize the network of retouchers and continuing to work on photos herself. "It's almost a stress buster for me," she said.

All Hands--and other volunteer organizations that work in crisis and disaster situations-- often warn about culture shock when you go to another country to work there. But for Manson, the shock was reversed; it came when she returned to the U.S. to her regular job. "I was too busy in Japan to think about what I was seeing," she said. "The advertising is good. It's how I make money and it keeps me happy and busy, but it's still weird to sit down to retouch beautiful things just so they can be sold."

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