A 'Catastrophically' Damaged Family Photo And The Stranger Who Saved It

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Comparison of Alex's original photo (left) and Michelle Spalding's restoration (right)
Comparison of Alex's original photo (left) and Michelle Spalding's restoration (right)

TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen):

Alex found an old and very rare family photo. The only problem? It was damaged to the point that the faces were completely unrecognizable. So...he turned to Reddit.

Reddit Links: 

-Alex's original r/estoration post
-batbrat's restoration work getting going viral

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Amory Sivertson: Time for a snickity snack.

Ben makes a crunching noise

Amory: Classic apple sound.

Ben Brock Johnson: That’s a classic Fall snack, baby!

Amory: I’ve got a non-classic fall snack. I actually have options. Do you want a noisy snack, or a quiet snack, or a sneaky snack?

Ben: Get sneaky!

Amory chews

Ben: Ewww. It sounds gross. I can barely hear it, but what I hear I don’t like.

Amory: Guess you can’t guess it.

Ben: Is it a pillow? Are you eating a pillow?

Amory: Kind of.

Ben: Is it a marshmallow?

Amory: Yeah.

Ben: It’s a marshmallow.


Amory: Sugar pillows.

Ben: This week is a Snacktime week, where we talk about our favorite stories from Reddit in between our more full meal episodes.

Amory: Though in a way this is more than a snack. It’s almost like an appetizer?

Ben: Or a dessert! Because a couple weeks ago you heard us talk with the Redditor batbrat, who solves Reddit mysteries at an impressive rate, with her knowledge of antiques and design.

Amory: We were going to put her in our episode about memory but she didn’t quite fit. So, we’re bringing her back today with a story from another Redditor, about how she helped him preserve something that was near and dear to his family. Take a listen.

Amory: Can you describe the photo for us? 

Alex: Umm so yeah, the photo is an older couple holding a baby in front of the television, posing for the picture, in a room which has much older furniture. 

Ben: This is Alex. He’s from Ireland, as you may have noticed. And he’s showing us an old photograph.

Alex: It's basically a traditional old Irish house somewhere in the countryside which probably didn't have running electricity or water. 

Amory: Who's in the photo? 

Alex: So that would be my great-grandmother, my great-grandfather and my mother, of course, as the baby. It's the only photo of my mom as herself at such an age or even as a kid. So it's quite precious to her. 

Amory: It’s also the only photo Alex’s mom has of herself with her grandmother, who’s holding her and looking on adoringly as her baby-sized hand puts an over-sized piece of bread in her mouth.

Alex: My mom was very close with her grandmother. My mom has a lot of good memories with her, such as going and visiting herself and from what I've heard, is a very kind of warm grandmother, very open and caring for my mom. 

Amory: How did you come across this photo? 

Alex: It's actually a very nice story. Myself and my partner were over at my mom's for dinner. And basically, as any parent would, she decided to take out all of the children pictures, and embarrassing pictures. 

Amory: It's a rite of passage really. If they can't handle the embarrassing photos how much further do you want to take the relationship? You know what I'm saying? 

Alex: Exactly. So she took out the book and we're looking through the photos and this photo appeared. And I stopped her and asked about it. She said, "Oh, I've never seen the photo before."

Ben: Which isn’t all that surprising, given the condition the photo was in.

Alex: The best way to describe it is catastrophic. To the point that a lot of it is many years of it being bent where the actual print on the front of the picture has come off probably. There has been scratches and you can barely see most of the faces due to the fact of probably damage from the sun as well. I couldn't even imagine what the full picture looked like at the time.

Ben: But Alex had an idea. He had recently stumbled upon a Reddit community that he thought could help.

Amory: You posted this in the r/estoration, a.k.a. the restoration community on Reddit. For people who don't know what that is, can you explain r/estoration?

Alex: It's a community of people who seem to have a passion for restoring older pictures. Some people find their own pictures and restore them. And there's also people who go there and request others to help out doing a bit of restoration. 

Ben: People like Alex. He posted the photograph, and he waited...

Amory: It wasn’t actually very long before someone responded with their attempt at restoring the photo. And then another person. There was progress but it seemed that the face of Alex’s great-grandfather, which endured most of the wear and tear, just couldn’t be put back together.

Alex: To be honest I did lose hope a little bit. Not in a disappointing sense, but more of a kind of realization of how bad the picture was damaged. With seeing a lot of the samples on the r/estoration page, you know, there might be a few creases or blurs or color correction requirements. In comparison, this photo was a different level to anything else that they were doing there. 

Ben: But pretty soon, Alex got another response, from a user named batbrat. AKA…

Amory: Michelle! 

Michelle: Hi Amory. 

Amory: Hey, Ben’s here too. 

Michelle: Oh cool.

Ben: Hey Michelle, how are you?

Amory: Michelle Spalding lives in Colorado. She’s a freelance illustrator and graphic designer.

Ben: She also frequents r/estoration, scrolling through Redditors' photo restoration requests and taking on projects when she can. All pro bono.

Ben: Can you describe one of the restorations that you are proud of that you worked on? 

Michelle: Well, there was one a few months ago half a year ago or so where a man posted a photo of his best friend's mother. And it was the only photo that this man had of his mother because she had died in childbirth. And the photo was in really bad shape it had been scribbled on and had some stains. And there was another one kind of a similar story where a woman, her mom had only had one picture of her grandparents. And only one picture of herself as it as a small child.

Amory: Sound familiar?

Michelle: That photo was just in horrible, horrible condition. I had to do a lot of a lot of restoration on that one. And it turned out pretty good. I was very proud of that one. Took a lot of time. 

Ben: A lot of time and a lot of zen.

Michelle: You know, sometimes all day, sometimes into the next day. I would say I've spent upwards of 20 hours on one. It's soothing in a way, kind of like a meditative process to see the improvement come gradually.

Amory: Michelle’s restoration work was featured on the website Bored Panda a few months ago. And she wrote about working on Alex’s photo, how she manually filled in the cracks created by the crinkles and scratches; how she used her knowledge of anatomy to balance the shading in a way that was consistent with the shape of Alex’s great-grandfather’s skull; how she squints to get a different perspective on her subjects.

Michelle: Sometimes you really just have to zoom in and go pixel by pixel, especially in areas where, you know, detail is important around the face and that sort of thing. You have to really work in a very tedious, meticulous way to get it to come out looking realistic and not painted over. 

Ben: In the case of Alex’s family photo, the results are jaw-dropping.

Alex: I was absolutely in shock. I had to just straight away text my girlfriend and tell her to come into the room and have a look at it and we were just both amazed by it. The photo was brought back to life in comparison to what it was. She went about reconstructing the face of my great-grandfather. She would have had to literally reconstruct and/or design the face to put there. And my mom is amazed how accurate that was. It's as if she was getting references from different photos, which she wasn't. I was just, the only word I can think of is flabbergasted, regarding it. 

Amory: Redditors were flabbergasted too. The restoration got posted elsewhere on Reddit, and it got more than ninety-thousand upvotes.

Alex: And I was sitting there going, "Oh my God, my mom's gonna kill me. Everyone knows that this picture's of her." But since showing her that she was delighted. She was thrilled to see how many people appreciated the picture.

Ben: The restored photo has been printed and placed in the family photo album, right next to the tattered original.

Alex: I think the photo brings us back to kind of, you know, the time that they were snapped. With older photos, there's a lot more appreciation, I think, because in more modern days there's so many photos taken that are not appreciated enough.

Amory: What does it mean to her to have this photo restored? 

Alex: A missing piece in a sense that has been put there. When she received the photo, when didn't she got to put the photo right next to the original. It just felt like the book was completed, you know, as in there's a piece that was missing from it and that's now been resolved. I just have to say I have to thank batbrat so much for the time that she spent on it. And I have to thank her just for bringing that bit of smile back to my mom when she got to have the photo. 

Ben: OK that’s all for this week. We’ll be back next week with a full episode. Later nerds.

Amory: Fellow nerds!

Ben: Mos def.

Headshot of Josh Crane

Josh Crane Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Josh is a producer for podcasts and new programs at WBUR.



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