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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


In just the first few days, the pair--working in a small room in the library where they sleep on the floor--took in some 300 water- and mold-damaged photographs from more than 80 people.

Most of the donors live in and around The Pass, as locals call the former fishing port.

"It's a little bit of everything," said Sell. "We had a woman the other day who came in crying. She found her wedding album under a fence. Her home was destroyed."

The album was crumbling from its saltwater bath.

"We're doing anything we can to save them," Sell said.

"This morning, a guy came in who had one picture of his wife, who died in July," Sell said. The man had also lost his home and his dog in the storm.

Harry Stegenga brought in an old photo of his father, the image nearly lost to mold. He left with a copy of a quality close to that of the original.

When a photo comes in, they gently clean it if possible, and then shoot a digital image that can be retouched. With Apple computer laptops and Adobe Photoshop software, many of the images can be repaired--the digital equivalent of using a pair of scissors to cut and paste a drawing.

"Sometimes, we have to re-crop them or even to redraw faces," Sell said. How long it takes depends upon the damage.

"From start to copy, it might take an hour," Sell said.

The first image that Ellis processed Monday morning took three hours.

"It's very tedious work and there's a lot of trial and error," he said. Storm victims have been limited to five pictures each.

There's growing interest in what they're doing. The Associated Press sent a photographer to document the project. The Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press plans a story. A Biloxi TV station interviewed them, and the local newspaper also is working on an article.

Sell's alma mater, Ohio University, plans to have students work on some images. Members of SportsShooter, a photography Web site, have offered to help.

The Free Lance-Star's photo staff has been processing some of the pictures this week. Digital files can be sent to any computer, reworked and sent back to Ellis and Sell to finish.

Sell and Ellis are leaving Mississippi today to head home to Fredericksburg. They are hoping that other newspapers and photographers build on what they've started.

"We're hoping for other groups to come down. We can only help so many people in four days," Sell said.

ON THE NET: Operation Photo Rescue details are available at fredericksburg .com or the blog at web.mac.com/fiftyeggs60/iWeb/Site

To reach RUSTY DENNEN:540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com

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