Photographer Kathleen Robbins watched the coverage of October’s floods and felt an overwhelming need to help. She grabbed her neighbor Beth Bilderback, an archivist, and they set out door to door in South Beltline to see what they could do. What they found – thousands of damaged photos – proved a welcome challenge.
By Colin Demarest
Dec. 11, 2015
Standing over two washbasins, photos in hand, volunteer Karen Newsome felt an odd sense of familiarity while looking at a couple’s mud-covered wedding photos.
Photographer Kathleen Robbins, while drying old carousel slides, suddenly felt tied to the retired teacher’s lecture they illustrated. And archivist Beth Bilderback, as she looked over countless stacks of waterlogged photos, felt as though her archivist background was being put to great use.
Early October’s floodwaters swept thousands of photos into a tide of grime and muck. But for these women and about 100 other volunteers there was a singular purpose – these family treasures would be saved.
When renowned South African flood photographer Gideon Mendel, a friend who was staying with Robbins, brought her to the South Beltline neighborhood, she realized the amount of work they could really do.
Robbins and Bilderback, director of visual materials at the South Caroliniana Library, quickly recruited other volunteers.
“We did it out of shear desperation,” said Robbins, a photographer and USC professor. “What else could we have done?”
One of Robbins’ students, Joe McElveen, was one of the first volunteers. McElveen said that when he got to South Beltline, the salvage operation “was rough around the edges” but that a lot got done in the first days.
Kathy Craig, a photo restoration expert at Memories Managed, worked alongside Robbins and Bilderback. She summarized their efforts in a single word – “wonderful.”
“Most people lost everything,” Craig said. “They got flooded big time, and for some people that was the only thing they got out of the deal – they had their photos saved.”
A family’s photo albums are often among the things most vulnerable to a flood. Dirt can scratch the film or coating. Waterlogged prints can turn squishy and brittle. And after a while, the emulsion – the actual picture – can simply slide off if the photos are not handled carefully.
Bilderback and Robbins knew how relatively little time they had to save those memories. Depending on the photo’s processing, water damage can be instant or take several days, according to the Northeast Document Conservation Center. Mold can appear within 48 hours, leading to irreversible damage.
Although it was Robbins’ first time in the neighborhood, she said it was the “profound experiences” of those in South Beltline that made her stay. She recalled feeling shell-shocked.
“It was so incredibly sad,” she said. “They had severe, significant loss, and we had time and resources, and our houses were fine.”
Bilderback and Robbins spent four days collecting, cleaning and drying prints and negatives. They estimate they rescued a couple of hundred photos.
“We did what we could,” Bilderback said. “What started as a small door-to-door project quickly became something else.”
Word spread fast. More volunteers showed up daily, like Newsome, a pastor affiliated with Shandon Presbyterian Church.
At first, she helped collect photographs from families and wash them. But as the negatives and prints needing rescue grew, drying space became critical, and Newsome offered space at the church.
Initially, 12 families’ photographs were restored. But with the church space, Newsome estimates the group ended up processing “28 dining hall tables’ worth” of photos, enough to almost fill the entire church hall.
Spring Valley Presbyterian also offered space and ended up with roughly 3,000 pictures to take care of. That took an additional three days.
Water, two bowls, soap and a drying rack are all that’s needed to do a proper restoration of dirty negatives and mud-caked prints.
After a quick rinse in a tray of water to remove loose dirt and smaller debris, prints are moved to another tray filled with soapy water. Hard-stuck stains can be removed in the soapy water by gently rubbing the negative or the print with fingers – never a sponge or paper towel.
A gentle touch was necessary for this project, and the photos were “treated like treasures” by volunteers, Newsome said.
For Robbins and Bilderback, there really was no endgame – they hadn’t thought that far ahead. Rather, it was a matter of doing as much as they could until they burned out.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing, getting into,” Robbins said.