Covering Katrina's Victims Led To Operation Photo Rescue

Feb 6, 2006

David Ellis and Becky Sell, photojournalists from The Free Lance-Star in Fredricksburgh, VA, may know about as much about the family lineage of the folks who live down in Pass Christian, MS, than just anybody else in town. That’s because Ellis and Sell spent a long week staring at photographs of the area’s residents, past and present, and their families on two computer screens for days on end, gazing at mud-stained, moldy, waterlogged, ripped, nearly-demolished pictures of weddings, of great-great grandparents long departed, of once-in-a-lifetime vacation trips, of graduation and baby pictures, of parties - you name it - a virtual visual genealogy of the people whose town and lives were nearly destroyed last year by Hurricane Katrina and the storm surge floodwaters that followed.

Becky SellPass Christian sits on a finger of land between three bodies of water: the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi Sound, and St. Louis Bay. Ellis and Sell went down there acting on a bright idea, and that was to set up computers and a copy stand with digital cameras and launch Operation Photo Rescue. Their goal was to restore as many of the storm-damaged personal photographs found in Pass Christian as possible. The two volunteers set up their gear in space donated by the local library. They spent nights tucked in sleeping bags on the library’s hard floor between bookshelves. Their days were long, filled with copying photos, pushing a mouse around in Photoshop, and then writing an online Blog about their experiences.

When word spread around town and folks started lining up at the door with their photographic keepsakes and memories, the duo needed more help. So they eMailed image files back to the photo staff in Fredricksburgh where the crew back in Virginia rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. And when the Blog spread the word to the larger photo community, folks around the country volunteered to help too, receiving image files in eMails and working Photoshop's restoration magic from locations far away and time zones removed from the hurricane-demolished coast.

By noon of only the second day, the residents of Pass Christian had showed up with more than 200 photographs. Their images covered everything from “A woman’s only wedding photos from 50 years ago to a father’s only picture of his little girl before she passed away,” Sell wrote in the Blog. “The amount of work is far more than two people can handle, but we're trying!”

Sell is a staff photojournalist at The Free Lance-Star and an NPPA member since 2001. Ellis is the newspaper's photography assignment editor and an NPPA member since 1996. The Free Lance-Star sent both of them to Mississippi to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last year. During one of those assignments Sell photographed a woman as she returned to her family’s home and, amidst the devastation, found her family's photographs that had been ruined by the floodwaters. That experience gave birth to this year's idea for Operation Photo Rescue. The two volunteered to do the mission on their own time, but the newspaper and photography director Charlie Borst backed their idea and paid for the supplies needed for the restoration effort and kept Sell and Ellis on the schedule, counting their time in Pass Christian as regular working hours.

Restored photographsAs the damaged pictures came in Sell performed triage and decided which images would be “easy” and needed only a little work, which photos were “moderate” and needed an hour or two of work, and which pictures were “hard” and would require major reconstruction. Volunteers around the country ranged from veteran photojournalists to college students, with varying levels of expertise and availability. Sell doled the work out accordingly.

By the fourth evening in town the duo estimated that more than 500 photos had been brought to them, in 71 groups. Ellis wrote in the Blog on Thursday night, “One woman brought in a photo of her grown son when he was a toddler. I was overjoyed that the photo was completely restorable, especially since the boy resembles my own 15-month-old son Jack. Not too long afterwards, my heart sank as I had to tell another woman that none of the last remaining photos of her children were salvageable. The tears were welling in her eyes as she told me she understood. She also thanked me for what we were trying to do. My tears came when she gave me a hug before she left, thanking me one last time.”

Ellis and Sell packed up at the end of the week and made the drive back to Fredricksburgh, but they’re not done with Operation Photo Rescue. There’s still plenty of work to do. Sell says they still have about 150 photographs left to work on. They plan to do some of the work themselves and distribute the remaining pictures to the growing list of volunteers. After the work's done on this group of pictures, Sell and Ellis will print them and mail them back to their owners in Mississippi.

Sell says the strangest photograph she saw during the week as one of a “king and queen, signed, with a woman shaking their hands, from about the 1980s.” There were also hard pictures, emotional photographs. The hardest photographs that she tried to restore were the wedding photos of a woman who found her damaged wedding album wedged underneath a fence when floodwaters receded. “Her house was destroyed, and she lost everything. This is all she had left,” Sell said. “They were fifty years old, and there was almost nothing left of them. They were peeling off. I had to look at them and tell her, ‘There’s not much we can do.' But you try to give back what you can.”

“We’re hoping to do it again, to continue,” Sell said today from Fredricksburgh. “It’s still very much in the planning stage, but we hope to extend Operation Photo Rescue and go back to Pass Christian and to also keep doing it remotely, with someone there doing the copy work on damaged images who will then send them to us.”

Ellis and Sell hope that photographers will continue to volunteer and will help to restore more of the damaged photographs. They're building a list of names of folks who are interested in donating their time and skills for the project. Sell can be reached via eMail at OperationPhotoRescue@gmail.com, and the Operation Photo Rescue Blog is online here.