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How to salvage photos, videos that are ruined from a flood

It's always devastating when people lose their possessions in a disaster, but do you know what they miss most? Their link to past memories, like photographs and videos. If your photos, VHS tapes or DVDs were damaged by flood waters, take heart: These water-soaked items are often salvageable.

Here to tell you what to do are three knowledgeable staff members from the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts: Ann Marie Willer, director of preservation services, Monique Fischer, senior photograph conservator, and Amanda Maloney, associate photograph conservator.

Shutterstock / KC Slagle
How to restore photos that were ruined in the flood.

What is the first thing people should do with wet photographs?

• If you have both photographs and negatives, tend to the photographs first.

• If items have been in contaminated water, be sure to wear protective gear (face mask, nitrile gloves and protective eyewear) before handling.

• Start by gently rinsing soiled photos in clean, cool water.

• If photographs cannot be dried immediately or if they are stuck together/attached to their enclosures...

Keep them wet in cool, clean water until they can be rinsed and fully dried.

Or

Freeze them to slow down the drying process.

  1. Place waxed paper between photos or wrap them with a non-woven polyester cloth, then place in the freezer.
  2. When you’re ready to work on them, remove photos from freezer. As the stack “thaws,” carefully peel photos from the group and place them face up on a clean, absorbent surface to air dry.
  3. Dried or frozen photographs are reasonably stable. When dealing with priceless photos, store them in the freezer until you can talk to a conservator.

• For photographs that can be separated:

  1. Remove photographs from their enclosures, frames and each other.
  2. Allow excess water to drain off the photographs.
  3. Spread the photographs out to dry, face up, laying them flat on an absorbent material (like paper towels or cloth).
  4. Use fans to keep the air around the photos moving at all times. This will speed up the drying process and minimize the risk of mold.
  5. Photos may curl during drying, but don’t worry. They can be flattened later.
  6. For less precious family photos, sometimes the best solution is to take a picture of each wet photograph and discard the originals.

• Negatives should always be dried vertically. Hang them on a line with plastic clips placed at the edges.

Note: Some photographic materials (e.g., wet collodion, ambrotypes, tintypes) are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable.

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What about VCR tapes and DVDs?

• For help salvaging VHS tapes, use this guide as a resource.

• To salvage DVDs, use this guide as a resource.

How should people store photos after they're salvaged?

• Dried pictures can be scanned or photographed to make digital files, which can be saved and reprinted at a later date.

• When storing photos in an album, use photo corners. Choose a photo album with buffered or neutral, good-quality paper and preservation-quality polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene pages. Ensure materials have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT).

Photo Corners Pack of 500, $10, Amazon

Page-Protector Photo Album, $38, Gaylord Preservation

• Salvaged photographs should be stored in a cool, dry location. A good target is 70 degrees Fahrenheit with relative humidity below 55 percent, but work within your means.

Additional resources:

For additional questions about damaged photographic materials, call NDCC’s 24/7 phone disaster assistance line: (855) 245-8303.

Caring for Private and Family Collections

Emergency Salvage of Wet Photographs

Library of Congress' Guide to Wet Collections

To find a conservator in your area, visit the American Institute for Conservation.

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