TOKYO Nov. 10, 2011 -- When Becci Manson came to Japan in May, the plan was to volunteer for three weeks and return to New York, where she worked as a professional photo retoucher. She signed up with Massachusetts based non-profit All Hands to clear debris and clean out homes destroyed by the one-two punch of Japan's earthquake and tsunami.
Those plans quickly changed once she saw the photos damaged by the tsunami, more than half a million of them.
Three weeks turned into six months. A short volunteer trip became a calling.
"It's been expensive. I'm burning through my savings now," Manson, 37, says. "But I've never found anything more worthy to spend my savings on."
The massive waves that battered Japan's northeast coast on March 11 killed more than 20,000 people and smashed through villages and cities.
The waves didn't just destroy homes. They wiped out memories, scattering generations of photos across hundreds of miles. Search and rescue crews recovered many of them in the debris, only to find they had been badly damaged by seawater and mud.
Volunteers Around World Repair Tsunami Damaged Photos
Eight months later, Manson is bringing those images back to life with the help of two photo scanners, thousands of All Hands volunteers, and more than 400 digital retouchers around the world.
"It's kind of a balance between not cleaning too much so the photo won't get damaged, and cleaning it enough so the scanner won't get damaged," Manson says.
The work is a far cry from Manson's full-time job, where she spends hours digitally perfecting high-fashioned ads for magazines like GQ. As a photo retoucher, Manson is often tasked with making models look skinnier, or as she likes to say, "making the impossible possible, the beautiful more beautiful."
Manson put that career on hold when she saw just how many photos were collected in the tsunami debris. In the town of Rikuzentakata alone, there were enough to fill five, two-ton trucks. Wedding photos, birthdays, and pictures of newborns – precious images of town festivals in happier times.
"Often it's not about the photo, it's about the stories people tell when they bring them in," Manson says. "The sense of community in most of them and the sense of family is amazing."
Volunteers had carefully cleaned the images, but tiny specs of dirt, and water spots remained. Manson knew she could apply her retouching skills to digitally fix the photos, and turned to other friends who could help.
"I put a shout out on Facebook and said 'If I did this, would any of you help me out?'" she says. "I sent it out to 25 – 30 people, and about 15, 20 got back to me and said 'yeah, it's a great idea."
Manson began scanning images in Japan, uploading them to a cloud drive so volunteers could download them abroad. Once the photos were digitally fixed, they emailed them to Manson, who printed and returned them to survivors.
Within months, the 20 volunteers quickly turned into 400. Digital retouchers from India to Afghanistan and every state in the U.S. offered to help. Those who didn't know how to fix the photos, offered to scan or print them. At least two dozen students from a photo retouching class in Colorado devoted an entire weekend to helping polish Manson's photos.
"I thought it was just an incredible project," said Jesse Koechling, a New York-based volunteer. "It's a great way for retouchers to use their skills to help people on a personal level."
Tsunami Damaged Photos Repaired By New York Volunteer
Koechling helped recreate intricate details of a bride's kimono, using Photoshop to repaint tiny flowers onto the red garment after seawater washed out the photo. In another image, he brought a young girl's smile back to life, erasing yellow blotches that covered her face.
For survivors like Reiko Yamada, the restored photos offer precious reminders of life before the disasters. She and her three young children escaped the waves, but the tsunami destroyed their two-story home in Rikuzentakata. Yamada found the second story along the water days later, and managed to grab photos of her children's birth and birthdays, but she accidentally smudged them while trying to clean the dirt off.
Thanks to retouchers in Singapore and Australia, the images are ready to be framed again.
All Hands volunteers have cleaned 135,000 photos so far, retouched more than 300.
They have helped Tomomi Shida reconnect with a hometown she no longer has. Shida's home in Ofunato was washed away, but firefighters recovered family photos, badly damaged, in the rubble.
She brought the photos to Manson, after the local newspaper featured her work.
"I thought it was a miracle when the photos were found," an emotional Shida said, as she gazed at restored school photos of her sons. "This is another miracle."
Manson considers it a blessing.
"I'll be going out of Japan with so much more than I ever thought I'd gain from this," she said.