Wednesday, October 21st, 2020

Why We (OPR Volunteers) Do What We Do

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This tribute to volunteers was written by one of our own very special volunteers, Karen Hagquist:

For most of us in OPR, the long and patient work of restoring “lost photos” is a labor of love, because we love photos, and we appreciate their importance in our lives and the lives of others. Photos are especially important to families who have survived disaster only to find most of their photographs have not.  Any photos that remain, however damaged, are often their only visual record of what life was like before everything was swept away. OPR volunteers try to save that visual record by restoring as many of their photographs as possible. In every new batch of damaged photographs that arrives we see the same tender moments captured: new babies, first steps, birthdays, holidays, school days, graduations, marriages, new homes and cars, vacations—every kind of milestone. We see love; we see what is valued; we see the amazing everyday history of families and communities. I believe OPR volunteers realize intuitively that these are the same important moments of our own lives, and being an empathetic bunch, we want to step up and help.

Photographs and the memories they evoke contain the past; when they are lost, it feels like losing that past. In fact, it is losing the past. The reason is that while memories can be kept alive through stories told and retold, once a photo is destroyed, the family members to whom it belonged can no longer point to it and say this is what  your great-grandparents, your grandparents, your parents  looked like; this is what the past looked like. When photos disappear, children can no longer see themselves in long-ago faces or see the places where their families began. Humans are such visual beings that we need to see in order to truly understand and remember.

These images of communities and families, held within frames, envelopes, and cardboard boxes, are nothing less than cultural treasure. They are so vital to our personal histories, yet, even when recorded on CDs and DVDs, they are incredibly vulnerable, and easily lost in disaster. Once they are gone, the past can be only partially conjured through words, no matter how beautiful or carefully chosen. I think most OPR volunteers, being image junkies, have spent enough of their lives looking at photos to realize that the past we try to retrieve for our disaster families is, also a visual history that belongs to everyone.

This is why we fight for every corner and every story of a photo, and why we try to be as true to the captured moment as we can. That’s why all the sharing of knowledge in the Forum. That’s why we spend a ridiculous amount of time learning to do it better and trying to stay on top of new techniques. That’s why there is always a next time we go back to the galleries to make that mystical connection with the next photo that calls to us.

Rescuing photos can be frustrating, time-consuming, brain-eating work, or an easy joy when the problems are simple. It’s when you have only the thinnest veil of molecules to guide your hand, that it’s definitely the former. But there’s another joy, not easy, that comes with the tough work; it’s a fierce, determined joy more important than frustration, a joy that refuses to give up, and keeps us trying to pull substance out of what often seems like nothing more than a vapor of pixels. It’s that OPR “low gear,” the one that keeps us working away, night after night, bit by bit, until we save as much as we can.

This is what OPR volunteers do, and a few of the reasons we do it. I think it helps now and then to remember what a no-kidding great thing OPR and OPR volunteers are trying to do in this world.

The difficulty is not what matters. What matters is the joy of saving the past one image at a time.

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