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Free Lance-Star photographers come to the aid of hurricane victims with Operation Photo Rescue

 Harry Stegenga displays a photo of his father that was nearly lost to mold, and the restored version. The Free Lance-Star's Rebecca Sell and Dave Ellis are saving hurricane victims' damaged photos.
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Date published: 2/3/2006


The photographs--some with water stains, some so faded the faces in them appear like ghosts--come in tattered albums. They arrive in warped frames, or with no coverings at all.

Free Lance-Star photographer Rebecca Sell and Dave Ellis, the newspaper's photo assignment editor, examine each one to see if it can be salvaged.

At a drop-off point they've set up in the temporary library in Pass Christian, Miss., they clean up the pictures that can be saved, make digital copies and give the restored photos to their grateful owners. At no charge.

Welcome to Operation Photo Rescue, the brainchild of Ellis, who figured professional photographers could help victims of Hurricane Katrina in a way that no one else can.

Along the Gulf Coast, the monster storm that wiped out people's lives, homes and livelihoods also took away many of their memories in the form of pictures--family albums, snapshots of people on vacation, prom pictures, formal poses.

Pass Christian, a town of about 6,500 west of Gulfport near the Louisiana state line, was one of the areas hardest hit by Katrina, where a wall of water surged inland.

Sell, 24, who joined The Free Lance-Star in 2004, traveled to the Gulf Coast twice last year to cover the aftermath of the storm. On her last trip in December, she photographed a woman in New Orleans who found a cherished, but damaged, picture in the rubble outside her home.

When Ellis saw it, something clicked, and Operation Photo Rescue was born.

Ellis and Sell devised a plan, drove the 1,000 miles to Pass Christian last weekend and set up shop with the help of the library and local residents.

The Free Lance-Star is paying for their trip, time and materials. Ellis and Sell have also received help and advice from photographer friends around the country.

"To me, this was something we do every day in our jobs, and here you're face-to-face with the subjects and victims of this tragedy. We can help and we can reap the reward of doing something valuable for another human being," said Ellis, 37, who joined the paper's staff in May 2004.

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