Volunteers Turning to the Web to Return Photos Stolen by Hurricane Sandy

After the 2011 Tsunami in Japan, there emerged volunteer efforts to find, restore, and return precious photos swept away by the waters. CNN writes of a similar effort being done in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Jeannette Van Houten also lost her Union Beach home in Sandy, but buried among the devastation she found a calling — to return memories of happier times to the 1.8-square-mile township by reuniting residents with the family photographs that Sandy scattered to the winds. The day after the storm, Van Houten went for a walk along the shoreline to assess the damage and she stumbled upon a photograph of a couple attending a wedding. She leaned down, picked it up and, suddenly, her mission became clear. “Photos are the only things that hold us to the past […]” said Van Houten.

She soon started a Facebook page where she uploaded the pictures she found, hopeful that through the power of social media, residents of the small community would see them and be able to identify the faces and families in the photographs. Since she started, Van Houten has uploaded more than 2,000 photos to the Facebook page […] About 60 families have reclaimed photos so far, she said.

Finding joy among the wreckage: Family photos returned post-Sandy [CNN]

Thanks for sending in the tip, Rob!

  • Nathan Blaney

    This is a good thing. While shooting in Union Beach shortly after the storm, I watched some kids picking photos out of a garbage can and it became obvious those might be among the very few salvageable things the residents of UB might have. If you haven’t been there or seen photos, its easily on par with the destruction in Haiti or Hurricane Katrina… Kind of unbelieveable even when you’re seeing it in person.

  • Nathan Blaney

    As well intentioned as this may be, I’d be incredibly cautious about picking up ANYTHING from a disaster site, lest you be accused of looting. Photograph it in place maybe or get someone from the immediate community to come collect it, but I’d be nervous about removing anything from the site.

  • The_photographer_Tom

    What a fantastic and altruistic gesture by Ms Van Houton. Kudos to the lady.

  • Bobby

    Looting sounds a bit over the top, don’t you think? Considering the meaning of the word. Could finding ANYTHING on the STREET that has been given up for lost and rescued for safe keeping be considered looting?

    These photographs were not found inside people’s homes. They were found on the streets of Breezy Point. Washed away from there original location. The owners probably did not know were there images ended up. There were bulldozers grabbing loads of garbage into dump trucks to be hauled away to a dump site. The images would have been lost forever. So, yes. I decided to intervene. I’m certain the rightful owners will be very appreciative once they found out someone rescued them from oblivion.

    There are a total of 2,100 homes in the community of Breezy Point. The odds are pretty good that the rightful owners will eventually come forward and be reunited with there lost keepsakes.

  • Nathan Blaney

    No, not “over the top” at all, particularly since it sounds like you were just tagging along and not actually working press.

    The storm damaged areas where I’ve shot have had populations that are very protective of their property. The simple and better solution would be to leave the photos in place or give them to a resident, not collect them yourself. Were it your neighborhood and you were rounding up your friends, family and neighbors things it would be very different. But even that aside, its a matter of simple personal safety. People in these situations are often stressed and indignant towards those they perceive as just coming to gawk at their misfortune – do you want to be the one someone takes anger out on?

  • Bobby

    So, the fact that I am not working press some how makes the intentions less then?

    Bottom line, the pics were saved from being destroyed. I’m certain the rightful owners will appreciate the effort in the end.

    If you want to call it looting, be my guest.

  • Nathan Blaney

    The fact that your not a resident or working in some legitimate capacity means you’re just a random person who probably doesn’t belong there, regardless of your good intentions.

  • Bobby

    Actually, an invited guest. It would be impossible for me as a random person to have access to Breezy Point since it is a private community and only volunteers, residents, invited guests, and those working in a legitimate capacity have access to the community.

  • Nathan Blaney

    An “invited guest” of your girlfriend hardly makes your presence necessary or legitimate unless you had some functional role there. Your defensiveness about not taking the simpler, more appropriate course of action paints you as a tragedy gawker that builds only resentment in these communities.

  • Bobby

    No need to resort to name calling.

    Yes. An invited guest of my girlfriend. Invited as a photographer. My functional role? To document the devastation just like every other photographer there in the days after the storm.

    It is interesting that in your first comment, you spoke of seeing kids picking up photos from a garbage can. What in your estimation makes that action any different than me doing the exact same thing? Just because they were kids, that makes it alright? Or are you saying those kids also
    did something wrong?

    Picking up the pictures was done purely for altruistic reasons and nothing more.

    Given what I know of the effort it is taking to put Breezy Point back together again, I realized there is no way anyone in the proper channels would take the time or energy required to find the rightful owners of these images. For the appropriate channels, there is a lot more important things to worry about right now. Like, getting electricity back to Breezy Point. Removing the sheet-rock from flood damaged homes before it becomes infested with black mold. Getting National Grid to bring gas back to the community. Demolishing the homes that have received the dreaded red tags. Etc. Believe me when I tell you that the last thing on the appropriate channels’ minds is finding the rightful owners of some pictures that a guy found in the streets.

    That is why I took the pictures with me. I kept seeing the nightmare scenario of them getting lost all over again under a mountain of ever growing bigger issues in the community, and of the ever present bureaucratic red tape. The images would become simply a needle in the Breezy Point relief effort hay stack. These images are not as important to them.

    At that moment, I realized they stood a much better chance of finding there rightful owners if I kept them and posted them online. That way they are one Google search away from being seeing.

    That’s why I decided to take the task of scanning them and putting them online. Because, unlike the proper channels, I do have time, energy, and means to dedicate to it and make it happen in a more timely fashion.

    If it makes you feel any better to call my actions the actions of “a random person”, “a tragedy gawker”, “a defensive person”, than by all means go right ahead. I’ve been called worse. But, know that all it is doing is serving as a detraction from the real purpose at hand which is, to find the rightful owners of the images.

  • Nathan Blaney

    “It is interesting that in your first comment, you spoke of seeing kids picking up photos from a garbage can. What in your estimation makes that action any different than me doing the exact same thing?”

    The kids were residents of the neighborhood, so its quite different.

  • Bobby

    So, please do think of me exactly as those kids.

    Because I, too, had the right to be in Breezy Point the 4 days I spent there.

    You have decided to create a fictional narrative in your head, using a few slivers of misinterpreted evidence, that casts me as an interloper in the community of Breezy Point.

    You can continue to believe that fictional narrative in your head if you so choose. Just be aware that that is all that narrative is, fictional.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do more productive things with my time. Like finish scanning the found images and returning the originals to St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Breezy Point for safekeeping, as had been originally discussed by my girlfriend and I, where they will reside until they can be picked up by there rightful owners.

    There’s another piece of evidence for you. I’m sure you’ll find a way to misinterpret that one, too.

  • Nathan Blaney

    You’re not those kids, you don’t live there. If you were doing a “job” – which I’d say is pretty loosely defined given you were tagging along with your girlfriend – then you should be acting as a journalist, not a scavenger… regardless of your motivation. The escalation in your defensiveness about this only serves to confirm that despite good intentions, you don’t belong there since you don’t have a grasp on journalistic ethics. Maybe you’ll return a few photos to owners – great. More likely, you’re gonna be that guy picking through other peoples stuff that doesn’t belong to you. Again, there were better and more appropriate courses of action available to you that you chose to ignore.