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MELISSA BLOCK, host: We're going to take you back now to this past March when a tsunami devastated Japan's northeast coast. If people didn't lose their lives, they lost practically everything else, except for photos. Survivors found countless pictures strewn amid the wreckage. Many were badly damaged by water.

Well, since the disaster, foreign volunteers have hand-cleaned more than 50,000 photos and professionals from around the globe have even restored some digitally.

Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

FRANK LANGFITT: Each week, tsunami survivors gather at temporary housing centers in the city of Yamada. They sing songs like this one, an ode to rural life in northern Japan, and comb through salvaged photos.

This morning, Miyoko Fukushi finds an old picture from the opening day of her daughter's elementary school. It's a formal shot of the students' mothers, wearing kimonos with their hands in their laps. Fukushi points to a younger version of herself and laughs.

MIYOKO FUKUSHI: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: I was chubbier when I was young, she says. Then she points to other women in the picture who lost their lives in the deluge.

FUKUSHI: (Through translator) Kayo Suzuki. She was washed away as she ran from the tsunami. This is Kayoko Kon. I heard she went back home to get her belongings.

LANGFITT: Fukushi picks up another photo of a neighbor whose daughter survived the tsunami but the daughter's husband did not. Fukushi begins to cry and dabs her eyes with a washcloth.

FUKUSHI: (Through translator) The daughter was disabled and her husband was taking care of her. He died as he was helping her escape in a wheelchair.

LANGFITT: Neither photo is in good condition. Specks of dirt are embedded in the school picture and saltwater has washed away some of the figures.

BECCI MANSON: It's a shame the damage has gone so far unto this lady, although most of her face is there.

LANGFITT: Becci Manson works with All Hands Volunteers, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. Hundreds of All Hands workers have spent months here on the coast, doing everything from repairing homes to cleaning drainage ditches. Ordinarily, Manson works in New York retouching images for magazines like GQ and catalogs for Barneys. When she saw all the damaged photos she saw another way to help.

Manson takes Fukushi's pictures and fires a blast of compressed air to clean off the dirt. She scans them to her laptop and uploads the images to a server. Then she turns to scores of volunteers, from Sydney to Spain, to restore them.

MANSON: I'll send an email out to all the retouchers and say that I've got loads more images for you and those people who write me back say I'm ready a new one, and I'll start them new sending images.

BOB WHITMORE: I'm Bob Whitmore, living in New Jersey.

LANGFITT: Whitmore used to work with Becci Manson in New York. He learned about the photo rescue project on Facebook. Whitmore's already restored two pictures and is working on a third. In all, retouchers have fixed more than 220 photos for nearly 60 families. Sometimes, Whitmore has to restore people's bodies or backdrops that have been blotted out by water. He uses Photoshop to restore a piece of clothing or reconstruct a room.

WHITMORE: You know, using the laws of perspective, you know, if you've got a wall going up and a ceiling coming over you can kind of figure out where they should meet.

LANGFITT: Professionally, Whitmore spends most of his time making a glamorous world look even more so in fashion magazines. But he says he's always loved restoring people's old pictures.

WHITMORE: It's about the most satisfying work I think I've ever done, taking old photographs and breathing some life back into them, putting the color back in that has faded or fixing spots that have been damaged. People just light up when they see something come back that they thought was gone.

LANGFITT: Cho Kikuchi certainly did. She lost all the photos in her house to the tsunami, but a few survived in a Buddhist temple, including one of her late father and another of her late husband. They were worn and scratched by the elements. Manson retouched the photos herself, good as new.

CHO KIKUCHI: (Through translator) I didn't expect this would be so beautiful. It's so beautiful.

LANGFITT: Cho has placed the restored prints in a small wooden shrine in a temporary home the government has provided. There, she honors her loved ones.

KIKUCHI: (Through translator) In the morning, I give water and tea. Then I give a bowl of rice. Then, I pray for them to please watch over me.

LANGFITT: Becci Manson says responses like this make the work worthwhile. She says it's also gratifying for another reason. Photo retouchers are often criticized for distorting reality in fashion magazines.

MANSON: You know, there's always someone who's got something to say about how thin someone has been made, how flawless their skin is and the effect it has on, you know, young women these days. So when I set up the project, it was nice to think that we could actually do something to help someone.

LANGFITT: And there's a lot more to be done. In Yamada alone, there are still thousands of recovered photos waiting to be reclaimed by their owners.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tokyo.

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