PHOTO RESTORATION

Restoring precious memories

Discover the ReStory project repairing countless photos damaged in Belgium's devastating 2021 floods.
Hands holding a damaged photograph of a sleeping baby.

In July 2021, Belgium experienced one of the most devastating and sudden floods in history, with many lives lost and more than 220,000 houses damaged or destroyed. The Southern Belgium region of Wallonia, more specifically the province of Liège, was among the worst hit, and the area is still recovering.

When you lose everything, you hang onto memories, but the survivors also lost thousands of photographs of immense sentimental value, which were damaged or washed away.

Through the support of a project named 'ReStory' – a joint initiative between advertising agency Happiness Brussels, numerous volunteer digital retouchers, restoration laboratory Object Care and Canon Belgium – a mission was launched to restore as many photos as possible for the flood victims.

"At Canon we know the emotional power of images and the stories that go with them," says Jacco Leurs, managing director of Canon Benelux. "That's why we support the ReStory programme of photo restoration and why we were touched by the stories behind it. The project is for anyone affected by the floods who would like to have damaged photos restored. This way, these people can keep their memories intact, and we can help alleviate their grief."

ReStory: A project to restore flood-damaged photos

A woman sitting at a table holding a water-damaged photo.

Photographs allow us to hold a precious piece of history in our hands – the people, places and memories we hold closest to our hearts.

A flood-damaged photo of a young woman sat amongst grass with a dog.

This photo had special significance for its owner – it was taken at a local beauty spot that she regularly visited with her sister.

During the flooding, the voices and faces of many individuals who'd been deeply impacted by the life-changing event appeared across news outlets. Mattias Vermeire, business director at Happiness Brussels, recalls the reports and how they spurred a movement to try to help.

"There was a woman on TV explaining that she had lost everything, but she had a photo album of her marriage photos and holiday photos," he explains. "She said, 'I can replace my TV, I can replace everything, but I can't replace these memories,' – of course, not knowing what the possibilities were. We thought, 'We can help those people'. We started looking around to see if there were any existing services through which we could restore pictures."

The agency went to Object Care, a company specialising in the restoration of objects through chemical stabilisation, to repair the damaged photographs.

Seeking memories to restore

A woman standing amidst debris holding a photo album containing a damaged wedding photo.

This woman lost her husband nine years before the flood waters swept through her home. She was desperate to be able to retain her memories of their time together, particularly her wedding photos.

A woman standing in front of a wall holding up a stained black and white photograph of a tricycle.

You might think water-damaged photographs are beyond repair, but they can be cleaned and restored using digital techniques.

Their plan in place, the Happiness Brussels team promoted the project through Facebook groups and non-profit organisations assisting flood victims. However, the initial response was limited. "We talked to Canon Belgium, they provided us with the best cinematic equipment Canon has, and we made a documentary about it," explains Mattias. "Then we went to find people personally, on the ground.

"We stayed for three days and talked to everybody who passed by, explaining what we were going to do. Some people said: 'You can help me, I still have some pictures left, or I know somebody who does'."

The team then began the restoration process, documenting the project through recorded interviews which featured in both a short documentary and a photo exhibition shown during the Photo Days event at Brussels Expo in October 2021. Soon, more and more people began getting in touch about restoring their photos – with the project continuing into the following year.

The photo restoration process

A creased, water-damaged photograph of a woman eating.

"On pictures that we collected, there wasn't just water," Mattias says. "There's sand, dirt and even materials like oil or ink. We even collected pictures that were totally orange."

A retouched photograph of a woman eating.

While there are some limitations to what can be restored, the process is nonetheless astonishingly effective. Even the most weathered images can be dramatically improved.

Object Care's restoration process involves manually cleaning each picture. A team of volunteer retouchers at the Happiness Brussels agency then works on fine-tuning the images.

"They are not afraid to take a damaged picture and just drop it in water," says Mattias. "At first, we would all go crazy, but they knew exactly what they needed to do. They put it in water to try to take off all the different elements and get the picture as clean as possible. Then they digitise it, simply by taking a picture of it on a Canon camera. And that's where we come in.

"We create advertising photography, using Photoshop and other techniques to improve or to combine pictures. We thought, 'We can use this expertise on the damaged photos, to clean them up and take away spots and traces'."

The volunteer in-house digital retouchers have now spent around 1,000 hours cleaning up flood-damaged images for the ReStory project, and some freelancers have also been in touch to volunteer their time. The editing process does have limitations, but the results and responses have been remarkable, nonetheless.

"What we can't do is reinvent how a person looked in a picture where half of the face is gone due to damage. But we can recreate skies and trees, and we can remove stains on people in images," says Mattias.

The corrected photographs were printed on the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 for professional-quality, vibrant prints. "We're collecting a lot of pictures right now, so that we can help as many people as possible. We're arranging tours to pick up pictures from people because, of course, due to the emotional value these pictures have, people don't feel comfortable just putting them in an envelope and sending them to us by mail."

Applications to restore pictures damaged by the flooding can be made at www.restory.photo

Five tips for restoring old or damaged images

Hands holding up a sheath of damaged photographs, the topmost a portrait shot of a young child.

"A lot of people only have two or three pictures for restoration, which means that we will be able to help a lot of people," says Mattias. "That is our objective. We didn't want to help three or four people with 100 or 200 pictures, we wanted to help a lot of people with a lower number of pictures that they really care about, pictures that bring their memories back to life."

1. Don't attempt to dry out your photographs quickly

"With pictures that are water-damaged, avoid trying to dry them immediately and putting them on any heating system because this will damage the pictures even more," advises Mattias. "The paper will start getting harder than it was before and start cracking, which is actually a chemical change, and will be impossible to fix. Once a picture is damaged, the best thing to do is to keep it in the same environment."


2. Put it into a sealed bag with water vapour

For those intending to send their photos to professional restorers: "If your picture has been in water, the best thing to do is to put it in a sealed bag with some water vapour or droplets to make sure that the conditions stay the same," Mattias says.


3. To restore old images yourself, digitalise them before importing into Photoshop or Digital Photo Professional (DPP)

Scan or take a high-quality picture of the photo you plan to restore and then open the digital version in editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. After creating a copy of your image, make any cropping and straightening adjustments needed.


4. Adjust any damaged areas and make colour corrections

Using the Spot Healing Brush in Adobe Photoshop can help to get rid of creases, remove spots and correct tears, fixing any damaged areas affected by water or ageing. Just be sure to create a new layer for any changes you choose to make so that you're not editing your original background layer. You can also use the Noise Reduction tool to reduce any grain. Colour fading is a common trait of old images, so making colour corrections is also often advisable to achieve quality prints. Canon's DPP RAW processing and photo editing software also has options to fine-tune your images, including colour adjustment and sharpening.


5. Prepare for printing

Save your image in a suitable image file format such as a JPEG, PNG or TIFF before printing at home. If your camera supports it, shooting in RAW is advisable, as that gives you maximum editing flexibility. The compact yet versatile A3+ Canon PIXMA PRO-200 is perfect for high-quality colour and monochrome printing. If you're hoping to restore images yourself, this wireless printer offers an 8-colour dye-based ink system for exceptional reproduction and customisable printing sizes. The affordable PIXMA range also delivers quality results when printing photos at home. Canon Pro Platinum PT-101 is a glossy, heavyweight photo paper for a studio-finish print with excellent fade resistance.


Adobe and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.


Written by Lorna Dockerill

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