31 August 2017

How To Salvage Photos After a Flood (or other natural disaster)

Cleaning, Sanitizing, & Restoring Flood Damaged Photos:

DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional photographer nor an archivist.  These discoveries came about only by necessity, and they are not necessarily the "best" way to clean and preserve your photos.  That said, time is of the essence and not everyone can afford to hire an archivist, especially when you're talking about a large number of damaged photos. Please read and follow my advice, below, at your own risk, but know that everything I share here was either recommended by experienced photographers and/or photo archivists, or was discovered by me, personally, through months of trial and error.  And please know that I made sure to test everything on my own (out-of-focus or duplicate) photos before subjecting any of my friends' photos to these steps.  I truly hope this helps someone and gives them a glimmer of hope:

I had intended to write and post this information last year after our horrific floods here in southeast Louisiana, but at the time, I was consumed with local clean-up and recovery efforts.  Now, in the aftermath of the tragic flooding in Texas and western Louisiana from the overly destructive Hurricane Harvey, I realize that this information could prove valuable to a lot of people, so I must share what I have learned.

In August of 2016, Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas were hit with unprecedented disaster when incessant rain caused flood waters to damage or destroy almost 100,000 homes and business.  My mission began when a dear friend's home flooded and I saw how distraught she was over her damaged family photos.  Much of her family was already deceased, so these photos were especially precious to my friend and my heart broke when we found them floating among the refuse.  Besides their personal significance, many of the photos in her collection were also historically valuable, some dating back almost ~100 years! 

I had previously served in the military where I was trained in photo development, so I believed there was some way to save her precious mementos.  Unfortunately, it had been a long time since my military training, and I had never learned any specific techniques for photo restoration, per se, but seeing my friend in tears, I knew I had to do something.  Undaunted by my lack of expertise,  I reached out to some photographer friends, and researched what I could online.  Both efforts yielded some invaluable tips however, I couldn't find any information about how to actually sanitize photos, safely.  Simply dunking them in a couple of water baths was not going get rid of the potentially dangerous bacteria and mold lurking among the prints. So I set out to forge my own way, and what I'd figured to be a 2-week project turned into a months-long, trial-and-error experiment as I sought to perfect the process.

The big problem: Flood waters are nasty business.
If you've never been in a flood, you might think, "Hey, it's just water." But the reality is, nearly all flood waters contain a percentage of raw sewage because sewer systems are not completely sealed.  And let's not forget the mud, sand, and slime that add to the murky mess.  Furthermore -- especially in warm, humid climates like we have in the deep south -- mold and mildew can start to set in and grow within 48 hours.  These destructive parasites can damage your photos even more quickly than nasty flood water!  Knowing all of this, I realized I needed to find a way to not only clean off, but to sanitize the photos quickly and efficiently.  I also needed to know how to preserve the pictures I couldn't get to right away.  Here is what I learned:

The MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO, upon finding flood-damaged photos, is to put them in a ziploc bag and get them in a freezer.  If you're grossed out at the thought of putting them where your food goes, go ahead and double-bag them, or put the ziploc in a paper bag or other container.  Just get them in the freezer as fast as you can.  This step buys you a lot of time.  Indeed, I believe you could keep the photos stored in a freezer, indefinitely, but certainly until you have time and the presence of mind to thoroughly clean them. Some websites recommend trying to rinse the photos before storing in the freezer, but that's often not practical or even possible. I think it's more important to get them frozen as quickly as you can.  And you might be tempted to try to pull the wet photos apart while rinsing them but if you're not extremely careful and patient, this can further damage the emulsion.  Rather than rush to try and pull them apart, just stick them in the freezer until you have more time to deal with them.  Freezing the pictures does a couple of things: It arrests the growth of mold and bacteria on the photos, and it eliminates a lot of the moisture making them (sometimes) easier to separate.

STEP 2: 
ALSO EXTREMELY IMPORTANT -- If your photos have been wet for more than 48 hours and they are encased in plastic or glass (as in photo album pages or a photo frame), Do NOT attempt to remove them from their "shell."  Instead, get some larger, 2-Gallon sized ziploc bags and put the entire page, photo album, or picture frame into a bag and freeze, as is.  Attempting to forcefully remove the photos from the plastic or glass will cause the emulsion to stick, destroying the picture, entirely. If the pictures have been wet less than 48 hours and you have the time and patience to carefully try, you can attempt to soak them in lukewarm, purified water with 2-3 drops of liquid dish soap.  I have not tried this method so I cannot speak for its effectiveness.  I do know that even if you try to separate the photos this way, you should ALWAYS scan them first with a high resolution, digital scanner.  Just place the entire thing (glass or plastic and all) on top of the scanner glass and scan the image so that you have a digital copy preserved.  It may not be perfect, but an imperfect digital copy is better than none at all.

STEP 3: 
Items Required:

  • Lots of table space (use flat top card tables, dining room tables, desks, etc.)
  • 4 Large, rectangular tubs for water baths
  • Snug-fitting, Nitrile, Powder-Free, Protective gloves like these: 

  • Sable-haired paint brushes (No synthetics! Found on arts and crafts aisle) 

  • Plain white paper Towels
  • Old bath towels or sheets
  • Purified water
  • A couple of fans to circulate the air (not pointed directly at the pictures)
  • Ziploc Bags (gallon and 2-gallon size)
  • Essential Oils: Tea Tree, Thyme, Cinnamon, and Clove (these are most effective and are very powerful when combined).  If you want to be really aggressive, add a drop or two of Thieve's Oil in, too. 
You can buy high-grade, inexpensive essential oils here: https://www.bulkapothecary.com/
  • N95-rated Particulate Respirator Mask like this (must be at least N95 -- You do NOT want to be breathing in mold spores!): 
  • Safety glasses (don't want any nastiness getting in your eyes, either!) 

  • Cotton Balls
  • Rubbing Alcohol
  • A good quality photo/document scanner
  • Plenty of Time and Patience!

STEP 4: The Painstaking Process

➜ Prior to removing pictures from the freezer, set up your workspace.  Depending on how many pictures you're trying to clean, you will need a pretty good sized workspace that has good ventilation.  I used my garage, setting up card tables and a large banquet table for work surfaces.  And you will want to turn on some small fans to keep air circulating, but don't aim them directly at you or the pictures; point them up at the ceiling or off to the side. 

➜ Fill your tubs halfway with lukewarm, purified water.  I used these awesome, restaurant-quality, "bus tubs" I found at Sam's Club: 

➜ Ideally, you should have four "water baths," but even with so many, you will need to change the water frequently.  When the water starts to look murky or have lots of "floaties," you'll know it's time to change the water.  Be diligent with this; don't get lazy!

➜ Three of the tubs will contain plain, purified water, but to one tub, you will add 2-3 drops of each of the listed essential oils. IMPORTANT: Even though I used this method successfully for, literally, hundreds of pictures, I urge you to use caution and do a couple of test runs with some old, duplicate photos of your own.  This will also give you some "practice" before you try it with the flooded photos. 

➜ When you have it all set up, it should look something like this:
➜ Make sure you are wearing your protective gear before you begin.  Place 1 or 2 pictures in the first water bath.  If pictures are stuck together, see if you can safely separate them while they are still frozen.  If not, allow them to soak for at least 30 seconds, then very slowly and patiently attempt to separate them.

➜ Gently move the separated photos around in the first water bath for about one or two minutes.  This is just to remove the worst of the filthy water off of them.  Then move them, carefully, to the second water bath.  Here, you will ever so CAREFULLY brush away any debris or mold from the backs and edges of the photo using the sable brushes.  Do not rub the photos and try not to brush the center of the photo, if at all possible.  I'm saying: you are barely whisper-brushing the edges and back, while the photo is still submerged, to remove or loosen any mold, mildew, or other debris.  It is OKAY if you cannot remove everything; we're going for "better," not perfection.

➜ Next dip the brush-cleaned photos into the essential oil waterbath.  Make sure you are wearing your gloves and do NOT leave the photos in this bath more than 15-20 seconds.  Simply swirl them around in the oil bath, then transfer to the last clear water bath for a final rinse.  Rinse photos well, taking care to only hold the corners and not disturb or touch the actual photo emulsion if you can.  Rinse for about 10-15 seconds and then place, picture side up, on a flat surface that has been covered with old towels and an additional generous layer of paper towels, like so: 

➜ Make sure you have fans circulating the air, but not blowing directly on, or at the pictures.  And don't worry if the edges of your photos start to curl up; these can be weighted and flattened later.  Do keep an eye on them as they are drying to make sure they don't start to curl up too much, too soon, causing them to stick to themselves.  If you see that start to happen, find something small (like a quarter or a small magnet, which can be placed on the corners to weigh them down.

➜ Allow the photos to dry, undisturbed, for a minimum of 5 days.  They must be absolutely dry before you move them!  This cannot be rushed and it's why this task is so time-consuming.  I had my entire garage space to work and I still had to work in batches over several weeks and months because of the drying process.

➜ Once the photos are completely dry, take a cotton ball and lightly wipe the backs and edges of the photos with rubbing alcohol.  I've since read that it's perfectly safe to rub the actual photo portion with denatured or rubbing alcohol, but I cannot vouch for this because I have not done it.

➜ Now that your photos are clean and sanitized, you need to scan them immediately.  First, you want to preserve the image as quickly as you can.  Since there's no way to know the long-term effects of what your photos have been exposed to, you don't want to risk them fading or bleaching out before you can get them scanned.  So invest in, or borrow, a high-quality, high-def scanner and get to work scanning the photos into digital files.  Make sure you back up these digital files to a second storage device (like a USB thumb drive) or cloud-based storage (like Dropbox).  Heaven forbid you should invest so much time and effort in cleaning and salvaging your photos only to lose them to a corrupted hard drive!  Don't wait; don't procrastinate.  Scan them and then put them in a box for safe keeping.

Again, if you have flooded photos that are trapped in album pages or picture frames, do not despair!  Simply scan the photos as they are -- even if they are wet and nasty (just be sure to wipe down the scanner glass with alcohol in between scans) -- and still encased in the plastic or glass.  No, it won't be a perfect quality scan, but it's better than having no picture at all.  And I was actually able to get some pretty decent quality photo scans from doing it this way!

☹️ The bad news -- and why I insist that you scan encased photos before attempting to remove them -- is that every method I tried to remove photos from encasement failed.  I tried removing them while they were still "fresh," while frozen, in a water bath, and even in an oil/water bath.  Nothing worked.  Every photo that I managed to free was badly damaged, often beyond recognition.  Most disintegrated or smeared irreparably as I was trying to remove them.  I eventually gave up trying to remove them at all and focused on getting the best possible scans I could of each image.  Many of those scans only need minor editing with Photoshop to ready them for reprinting.

❣️ Last, but not least, if there is one thing I've learned over the past 12+ months it's that there are no guarantees in this world.  You may think a flood will never happen to you, but you never know.  And it may not be a flood; it could be a tornado or earthquake or hurricane.  What I mean to say is, do yourself a favor and start scanning ALL of your printed photos now.  Don't wait for catastrophe to happen; scan them now and back up the digital files so that you will know they are always accessible to you.  I am in the process of doing that myself, now... It's gonna take awhile, but it sure beats the alternative.

For all who have suffered so terribly in Hurricane Harvey and the resultant flooding, my heart goes out to you and my prayers are going up for your recovery and restoration.  Yes, you have a very long road ahead, but you do not, and will not, have to walk it out alone.  God bless you all. ♥️

12 August 2013

Day Four -- Part Two :)

This first full day in Swaziland was so amazing -- and so full of life-changing events -- that I felt I had to break it up into multiple posts to do it justice.  Throughout the day, I just kept thanking God for allowing me to be here...

Mangwaneni was beyond my telling of it; I cannot adequately express the effect those children, or that place, had on me.  It was, at once, beautiful and heart-breaking, wonderful and bittersweet.  Those precious children know so much greater want, so much more need, and have witnessed enormous pain, already, in their short lives... and yet, they have JOY that I have not seen in children who live with abundance.  They have HOPE that other people, with half their problems, know.  They exhibit a selflessness that is rarely seen among the most pious of Christians, much less in children so young.  There is a potential there for God to do so much, because there is so much to do!  
I came away humbled and inspired -- I was humbled because I realized the universal irrelevance of my seemingly large problems.  And I left inspired to live my life more selflessly devoted to Christ, and with more HOPE and expectation than ever before.

Around 2:30, we left the Care Point to go and make home visits to some of the families in the area.  We loaded up the shuttle with bags of groceries, soap, and blankets to give away to those in need.  This is something I have done before, with our church, here in Baton Rouge, but nothing could have prepared me for the journey which lay ahead...

I have seen abject poverty before, but I have never seen this. 
A precious widow lives here, with her 7 children.  Her husband died several months ago, and now she is doing all that she can to make a go of it.  A couple of her older children walk, several miles each week, to come to church and Healing Place Church Swaziland is reaching out to help them get on their feet. 

At first, I wondered if we should be taking pictures... I did not want to embarrass them or make them feel like they were an object of our pity.  But Gugu Precious (love her!) explained that it was OK because they want us to see how they live and they want us to remember to pray for them.  Indeed, every time I look at these pictures, I am reminded to pray for this sweet family.  It was hard to witness this, but when you ask to see the world through God's eyes, then you cannot ignore the pain or pretend it doesn't exist.

Too many people spend their whole lives focused on their own problems, and because of that, their problems seem insurmountable and overwhelming.  Sometimes, we need a kick in the gut, to wake up and see that we do have SO much to be thankful for... that our problems -- while still very real -- maybe aren't quite so daunting, after all.  
Too often, people shut their eyes to the plight of others because they don't want to see the pain or witness the need.  
It's uncomfortable for them.
But God didn't call us to be comfortable.  And He certainly didn't call us to be self-centered and self-consumed.  He called us to have compassion: To see the need and to be His hands and feet to the world.
I wonder how many people -- if they would just take their eyes off of themselves for a second -- would see the world as God does?  Maybe, with a little God perspective, they would start being thankful for their blessings instead of constantly complaining about all that's "wrong" in their lives.
Sorry to get on my soapbox, but I'm preaching to myself, too.
Africa was a wake-up call, but one doesn't have to travel halfway around the planet to experience this.  You simply have to look.  
There is someone hurting, someone who's in need, someone who needs rescue in your very own zip code.
I will continue to remember and pray for this family... And I will choose to keep my eyes OPEN.

27 July 2013

Day 4 -- Wednesday, 3 July 2013 -- PART ONE:

See that view?  That's what I woke up to my first morning in Mbabane, Swaziland!  It was late when we arrived at Redberry Inn last night, so we couldn't see the setting, and we were so tired, we wouldn't have cared anyway.  Waking up to this, however, was simply breathtaking!  There are mountains for miles and miles... These pictures don't begin to show the extraordinary beauty of Swaziland.  In many ways, it reminded me of Hawaii...

Redberry Inn was SO nice and very clean and cozy, but on our first morning there, we were reminded -- once again -- that it is winter here.  Brrrr!  Nothing like a cold blast of air to wake you up each morning!

We enjoyed a wonderful breakfast before heading out to start our day.  First stop was a Staff Development Training at Pastors Adam's and Kim's house where we got to meet key members of the HPC Swazi team.  Then, we were off to Healing Place Church Swazi campus!

It was interesting to see the capital of Swaziland, busy and bustling under the dawn of a weekday.  The outdoor markets were already bustling and there were people walking everywhere.  The Church is located in the heart of the city, right in the center of everything, which is great for outreach to the community...


We weren't at the church long before we loaded up again to go to Mangwaneni.  This is a Care Point, started by Children's Cup, which works with the local community to provide free education and food to the children of that area.  I had heard about the Care Points for years, but was completely unprepared for the amazing experience which awaited me...
My first impression was amazement at the majestic view which lay before me.  I could hardly take my eyes off the sweeping mountains and valleys, curving gracefully into infinity.  And then I saw the children.

They were SO precious!  These sweet babies... only between 4-7 years old, greeted our team of strange faces with beautiful songs and bashful smiles.  My heart melted as I looked into the eyes of these innocent faces and listened to their beautiful voices praising God...

Our team spent the rest of the morning with the children of Mangwaneni -- learning a lesson about the power of the tongue, playing games, and doing a puppet craft for them to take home.  As a special treat, the kids were given boxed lunches from Hungry Lion.  Each box contained 2 pieces of chicken, french fries (chips), and came with a cold drink.  Knowing that many of these children come from impoverished homes, we were surprised to see they were not eating!  Most of the children took one or two bites of food, then closed their box and held it on their laps.  We inquired about why they were not eating and were told that they were saving the food to take home and share with their families.  It was all I could do to not break down, sobbing, right then and there.  These precious children -- so very young -- were already deeply aware of the ravaging effects of hunger and true lack.  The decision to set their own hunger aside and choose selflessly for their families' welfare was a sobering reality check for these spoiled Americans.  It would be only the first of many lessons I learned while in Africa...