LAFAYETTE, La. -- Kimberly Viator is fixing broken hearts one picture at a time.
The 49-year-old photographer moved to the Youngsville area from Texas just a month and a half ago, but already she has been thrust into the Louisiana spotlight in a way she never expected.
It started with a simple Facebook post. Viator sent a message to flood victims offering help to those who lost pictures and photo albums in the water.
She offered to help repair flood-damaged photos free of charge.
In one day, her post was shared more than 69,000 times. To date, it has racked up more than 3 million views.
"My phone rings all day," Viator said. "People have been contacting me. It's overwhelming the amount of people that my post reached and continues to keep reaching."
More than 1,000 people have contacted Viator for help, and the number is growing. So far, she 's taken in several thousand photos. So many, she said, she does not know how she will be able to tackle them all alone.
Each one has a heartbreaking story. There was the lady who lost a baby in the hospital she never got to see, the child who lost a parent, and a picture was all he had.
"I told them I would help them," she said. " I feel obligated. I feel bad if I can't help them."
The process Viator uses to restore the pictures is time-consuming. She must first get the photos or albums dry if they are wet. If people can't get their pictures to her right away, she tells them to put them in the freezer to "buy time" and prevent mold from growing. Once they thaw, the items are easier to separate and prepare for drying.
When the pictures are dry, Viator goes about the painstaking task of scanning each one into a computer file and creating a digital image. She then goes to work using a Photoshop program to make the image as similar to the original as possible. She said in most cases, the former physical picture cannot be saved.
"They shouldn't be touched," she said. "Especially if they have been underwater for a long time, with all of the sewerage and stuff in it."
Once Viator completes the project, she is able to return at least some of the precious memories that people have lost.
Coteau resident Connie Bourque said she brought a couple of pictures to Viator, including the only picture of her and her husband when they were young.
"We married young," Bourque said. "This picture was very important. All our wedding pictures we lost in the last flood. It was the only one we had. There are no more pictures of us. This is the last one. She gave me back hope. I really appreciate everything she has done. She is amazing. Having to deal with a flooded house again for the second time, knowing that she was there for me, I can't thank her enough. She is an angel."
Viator said she and her husband moved to Louisiana to be closer to his family. She left a thriving photography business in Tyler, Texas; he was an oilfield worker who became a truck driver when the work dried up. Since her husband is away for for long periods, Viator found she had time on her hands and wanted to do something productive.
Almost all of the flood victims have told her the same thing. Furniture, dishes, things can be replaced — but not precious memories.
"I try not to think about it," said Virginia Baisden, who lost hundreds of family photos in the flood. "I'm here trying to dry them out and when I look at them they are so bad, I just start crying."
Baisden reached out to Viator on Facebook and, although she has not been able to connect with her yet, she is hopeful. The Eunice resident said she felt luckier than many people because the main part of her home did not flood. Although, she did lose her car and everything on the bottom floor of her home (used mostly for storage) where her pictures were located.
"We were a picture-taking family," she said holding back tears. "Every time we get together, we look at albums. What she is doing (Viator) is just priceless. And what was so nice to see is that when she made that offer, so many other photographers jumped on the bandwagon to say they would help too."
Viator has not limited her efforts to Acadiana. She recently made a trip at her own expense to Baton Rouge, where the devastation hit even more people. She had planned to meet 15 people, but more than 20 were there.
"Some people didn’t even call," she recalled. "They just showed up. I had brought some tubs to put the photos in and I was completely full."
Viator said she made the trip because many couldn't get to her because their cars had flooded.
Now, she has become so inundated with requests for help, that she is seeking assistance from experienced photographers and those proficient in Photoshop. She hopes to find a few people who are willing to lend a hand with the overwhelming task. And, because of the expense, she has had to limit the number of photos she will take for free to just 20 per household .
"After that I have to charge," she explained. "It's just so much equipment and supplies. Some neighbors collected a bunch of supplies I needed like plastic bags and gloves. But I've reached out to other photographers and labs to help, or at least offer a discounted fee for flood victims, and I've had some response. I've had some offers from all around the world."
Viator said her motivation for taking on such a monumental task is simple.
"Portraits and photographs have been my life," she said. "They hold on to a memory that, even if we don't remember it, brings back a sense of happiness, a sense of that time."
Viator recommended following the steps below for those trying to restore pictures themselves.
RESTORING FLOOD-DAMAGED PHOTOS
1. Wet, single photos need to be laid out to dry on an absorbent surface, image side up. DO NOT RUB. If there is any dirt on the photo just leave it.
2. If the photos are in an album, wrap the album in plastic bag and place in the freezer. It will depend on how long the photos stayed underwater, but it is possible to save some from the frozen state. If they are in the plastic sleeves do not remove them. If you cannot get to a freezer, carefully cut the pages from the album binding, and lay them on an absorbent surface to dry. Putting a fan to circulate the air is a good idea and will help them dry faster.
3. Framed photos should just be left to dry in the frame. Removing them wet from the glass could smear the image. Once it seems dry, carefully peel the frame backing off and attempt to get the glass and photo out so the glass can lay flat on a scanner. The photo can be scanned through the glass.
4. Putting the images in a plastic bag and storing them in a freezer will halt the mold growth during the time you may need to prepare to properly dry your images. Spraying Lysol spray can also slow the mold and allow the images to dry and be scanned.
5. Once the photo is dry, the image can be scanned with a home scanner/printer combo and saved on a computer as a digital image. Make sure you scan with no less than a 300dpi, which can be found in the scanner settings. This scanned image can be restored in Photoshop and can be emailed to a Photoshop expert for the restoration.
6. Gloves and masks should be worn when handling these wet images. Please remember these have absorbed very contaminated water, and will smell very badly. Even if you save an image from water with no apparent damage, the photo can still have a bad odor and grow mold, which can spread through a home. It is always best to scan the image and reprint it.
Photoshop restoration is a skill and very time-consuming. There are several online companies that, for a fee, will restore your images that you have scanned
(© 2016 WWL)