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Volunteers help disaster victims retrieve memories by restoring photos

Kuninobu Yagyu hangs up photos damaged by landslides and floods in western Japan after cleaning them, in Kasaoka, Okayama Prefecture, on July 22, 2018. (Mainichi)

OKAYAMA -- Volunteer efforts to clean photographs damaged by recent floods and landslides in disaster-hit areas in western Japan are spreading, helping victims cherish their special memories.

The activity has gained so much momentum among victims and volunteer groups that the staff of photo studios can no longer keep up with the demand for cleaning. As photos quickly deteriorate from bacteria and fungi in the muddy floodwaters, it is necessary to wash developed or printed photos with clean tap water as soon as possible. One representative from a photo equipment manufacturer is advising flood victims to dry the photos if cleaning them is impossible.

"Omoide Kaeru" (Returning memories), a non-profit organization based in the northern Japan city of Sendai, took part in photo cleaning volunteer work after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 that devastated northern Japan. The organization is now responding to requests in the region of western Japan hit by the torrential rains, but it will take more than half a year to finish cleaning the photos that it has already accepted. In addition, the volunteer group "Risukai Yamaguchi," based in the city of Yamaguchi, which cleaned photos in the wake of the landslide disaster in Hiroshima Prefecture in August 2014, is also open for consultation concerning damaged photos. Hiroshima was one of the hardest-hit areas in the latest downpours earlier this July.

Kuninobu Yagyu, 38, who runs Yagyu Photo Studio in Kasaoka, Okayama Prefecture, posted a notice on the shop's website and other media on July 13 that the studio would join in the volunteer work of cleaning damaged photos. He was prompted to join the efforts after he was shocked by news footage showing an evacuee cradling a photo album. Yagyu has since received some 30,000 photos. They include scenes of wedding ceremonies, traditional Japanese rites carried out in girls' third and seventh years and boys' fifth year, family photos and even a portrait of a deceased person.

With the help of his co-workers and friends, Yagyu carefully pulls out some 1,000 photos a day from frames and albums, washes them with water and then hangs them up to dry in the shade. Yoshihito Matsumura, 57, a resident of the flood-ravaged Mabicho district of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, brought 20 of his family's albums to Yagyu's studio.

"These photos are the records and memories of my children's growth. I am exhausted from cleaning my home, so I really appreciate them cleaning the photos," he said.

Yagu said, "It would be great if the people who brought their photos to us keep them safe, and even end up using them for slideshows at their wedding receptions. I hope they can come to appreciate the value of a photo."

While the company has stopped accepting any more photos for July, Yagyu says he will continue the volunteer work from August if people can guarantee places to wash and dry the photos, and if volunteer workers are available.

Other photo-related companies have also begun to help the victims hold onto the precious memories contained in photos. Fujifilm Holdings Corp. recently posted instructions on how to properly wash photos and other tips on its website. According to a public relations representative with the company, drying photos in the shade or putting them between newspapers is also effective when it is difficult to wash them. Another method to preserve snapshots is to wrap them in plastic or other bags and freeze them at a temperature below minus 10 degrees Celsius. Photos produced from a household printer, which are sometimes more vulnerable to water, need to be cleaned in a different way.

Meanwhile, Studio Alice, a photo studio geared toward children's photo shoots, is offering to reprint damaged photos for free. While the company is mainly providing the service for photos that were shot at its shops and only if the shop still has the photo data, the company says it is open to restoring other photos as well.

(Japanese original by Kentaro Ikushima, Photo and Video Center, and Yuta Shibayama, Osaka City News Department)

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