Look at the photos on the walls that surround you. The older ones that never got scanned. The ones that were too special to just get dropped on Instagram or Facebook into a digitized pile. Move your eyes from the ones showing silly moments that make you smile, to the ones from that long ago vacation that make you want to go back, the baby pictures that let you time travel, and the ones of people who have died. We often take all those framed memories for granted as a part of the scenery in our homes, but close your eyes now and try to imagine them. Notice how details feel like they are just out of your grasp and how the shape of the people and places in those photos start to fade away. Consider the importance of the stories that are stitched to those photographs and the ones that were handed down to you in now-dusty photo albums and imagine them slowly fading away as well. These photos are the story of your family and the story of you. Could you ever be whole without them? Would you risk your life to hang on to them and all they represent?
If you’ve been watching the news, you know that southern Louisiana residents have been confronted by those questions and the loss of so much over the last two weeks, but for some, there is hope for their treasured photographs, thanks to one woman’s tireless efforts.
Kim Viator moved away from her Texas roots and her photography studio and set up a new life in New Iberia, Louisiana, a little more than a month and a half ago in support of her husband, whose father recently died. Up until last week, she had never seen flood waters like those that hit Southern Louisiana and unleashed another lingering catastrophe upon a community that, in a very brief time, she has come to care for.
Unlike many of her neighbors, Viator was touched by the grace of luck and spared flood damage from a storm that she says “surprised everyone.” She explains that the extreme conditions quickly got to the point where people could not go back into their homes or retrieve personal items. This lasted for days, and as residents returned home, Viator began hearing horror stories about families that were throwing away wet damaged photos — memories in a trash heap with everything else drenched and ruined.
“My sister-in-law was helping to gut a house of a friend of hers and was just telling me about it when she mentioned that they threw away the wet photos and how sad the family was. I immediately said no, we can possibly save those.”
With time on her hands and a desire to help after starting her business anew in Louisiana, Viator huddled with her niece and posted a simple offer of charity on her Facebook page (later adding a tutorial on her website). It didn’t take long to for the word to spread. Stating that she couldn’t take money from “people who are hurting so badly,” Viator offered to use Photoshop to repair images and provide a digital copy for flood victims. She also offered wholesale pricing to reprint photographs and she’s working to get pro labs to donate prints to assist in a restoration effort which has, at this point, started to take over her life.
“These [photographs] are contaminated with very dirty water and it is very crucial to use caution and protection when working with them. My home is not ideal for that, but it never hit me that I would have so many people relying on me to save the one thing they treasure the most.”
Viator mentions that there are images spread out on her tables and that she’s trying to secure office space as the requests and the work continue to come in and she does everything she can to help. The response to Viator’s offer has been overwhelming, it seems, and she says it’s starting to become a financial strain, but she certainly isn’t seeking pity and she isn’t interested in cash donations, telling me that she has referred offers of financial support from strangers to relief organizations. Viator seems slightly concerned that her limit might be approaching, but she’s got friends and family that are on the way with helping hands and, with every message she reads, the imposition and disruption to her life seems as though it’s losing some of its relevancy and she is becoming even more dedicated.
“I read through the desperate messages and stories — ‘my son was buried 10 days before the flood and the only thing I have of him are his photos. Please help me!’ — And that is repeated over and over and over. Parents, grandparents, siblings, children, and military heroes. These folks have lost everything and everyone says, ‘I don’t care about my house or furniture near as much as I care about my photos, they are the only memories I have of my family. My child will never know what his father looks like because he has passed away and all his photos are ruined, please help!’ It is just heartbreaking.”
As Viator has been there for her new community in a time of immense need, so to have they been there for her, inspiring her with their charity and their resiliency.
“This community, this state, does not wait for help to come. You will find neighbors gutting their own houses, and walking away from it to go help their neighbor gut theirs. School groups like football teams meet in neighborhoods and start on the first house and move to the next. Folks that didn’t flood are organizing food to be delivered daily.”
Viator talks about grocery stores selling water at cost and how the local Dominos Pizza worked with a 9-year-old boy to hand out more than 360 pizzas at a deep discount and it’s clear that she believes that she is simply doing her part. But while that’s true to a degree, the scope of what she’s doing can’t be downplayed. At rock bottom with an uncertain future in front of them, families are being made whole by Kim Viator’s ceaseless efforts to make sure that they have pictures to hang on their walls and both a sense of history and of self that can serve as the foundation upon which they rebuild their lives. And if you think that’s hyperbole, close your eyes again and think of how hard it is to recall a memory from a photograph that isn’t there.
Jason Tabrys is the features editor for Uproxx. You can engage with him directly on Twitter.