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OPERATION PHOTO RESCUE

February 3, 2006 12:50 am

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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. smithvirginia.jpg

Pass Christian, Miss., resident Virginia Smith displays her original wedding photograph of her mother and the restored version. 0203davebecky.jpg

Dave Ellis and Rebecca Sell work in the Pass Christian, Miss. library trailer on Operation Photo Rescue, a project to restore damaged photographs salvaged by Hurricane Katrina victims. lo020306opr1.jpg

Photo assignment editor Dave Ellis talks with Georgia Kuhner of Pass Christian, Miss., about photos she brought for restoration. Many of the photos Ellis and photographer Rebecca Sell see are severely damaged, but owners say they'll take whatever images they can get from them.

By RUSTY DENNEN

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.

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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