Photographer Restores Photos for Families After Hurricane Ian

October 19, 2022

By Brienne Walsh

On the day that Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, photographer Krista Kowalczyk and her partner sat in her house in Fort Myers, which was just outside of the flood zone, and listened to shingles flying off their roof. “It sounded like there were construction workers pounding above our heads,” she says. “At one point, I called our neighbor, and told him that if we needed to make a run for it, we were headed to his house.”

The roof stayed mostly intact. “In retrospect, we were so blessed,” Kowalczyk says. The morning after the storm, she woke up, and knew that she had to go help friends and community members who weren’t so lucky.

[Read: Is Your Photo Business Ready to Face a Natural Disaster?]

The first thing she did was call her daughter, Olivia Shears, who is in college in Miami. Shears had not sustained much damage from the storm and was able to connect to the Internet, where she could access the back end of her mother’s photography website, Impressions Photography. Although Shears had no experience with e-commerce, she was able to upload a gallery of her mother’s photographs of Sanibel Island, which was left a disaster zone after the storm, and offer metal prints of the images to raise funds for hurricane relief. “It was the easiest way I could think of to help people immediately,” says Kowalczyk.

Soon after Hurricane Ian left the area, Kowalczyk, who already donates much of her free time to community service, ventured into the places that had been heavily flooded. She did so with the intention of moving furniture; upon arriving at the first house, however, she found that her friend had taken all of her family’s soaked photo albums and laid them out on the front yard in the sun.

Kowalczyk has worked for the past 20 years as a wedding, portrait and family photographer in Southwest Florida, staging many shoots on the beaches of Sanibel Island. But she received her photography education at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in the early 2000s, where she studied analog photography. “I learned enough there to know that I don’t really know what I’m doing,” Kowalczyk laughs.

One thing that she did know, thanks to her education, was that the photographs had to be taken out of their albums so that they could dry. Even though she knew that her professors would cringe if they could see her putting on dish washing gloves and cutting the photographs out of the plastic album pages, she knew that she had to work quickly before mold began spreading over the images, ruining them forever.

damage from photos because of Hurricane Ian.
Image of Sanibel Island wedding and portrait photographer Kristina Kowalczyk salvaging flood damaged photographs from Hurricane Ian devastation. Images Courtesy of Krista Kowalczyk.

Working on the fly, she developed a process to save her friend’s precious family photographs. First, she took a digital image of the photograph in case it was damaged during the removal process. Then, she cut the images out of the plastic albums and lay them flat to dry. Any images that were stuck together, she soaked in water for up to 10 minutes, at which point they easily peeled apart. “Photographers who haven’t printed their own images likely don’t know that you can dunk photographic prints in water,” she says.

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Even though, as a family photographer, she knows how precious images can be, Kowalczyk was moved to see her friend react to having family photographs saved after the flooding. “It gives people hope,” she says. She noted that many families she’s spoken to since looked for their photograph albums first upon returning to flood devastated homes.

Kowalczyk knew that even if her process was imperfect, and that she could only do so much personally, she could help a lot of people to save their images by posting tips on her social media pages, which include an Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok accounts. Truly precious images, or those that already were covered in mold, she recommended freezing until a restoration specialist could work with them individually. The freezing, she noted, would stop the growth of further mold. For images that were salvageable, she recommended that families take photographs of the images, and then remove them from albums, where moisture easily gets trapped. Any images that were stuck together could be soaked in water, and then dried. And if a photographic print was destroyed beyond recognition, she recommended that families look for negatives, which could be used to make new prints.

metal prints sold for raising money from hurricane Ian destruction.
Metal prints of iconic Sanibel Island scenes photographed by Krista Kowalczyk were sold in support of hurricane relief.

Kowalczyk also began to compile a list of photographers who were willing to volunteer their time to re-touch images and began connecting them with affected families online. She also connected people to Chatbooks, which has offered to reprint photographs lost during Hurricanes Ian and Fiona for free. Working round the clock with her daughter and her regular assistant, Maddie Briggs, Kowalczyk helped families in her local community begin to dry out their images. Throughout, she continued to sell metal prints of her Sanibel Island photographs—to date, she’s raised over $2,000 for hurricane relief, which she plans to donate to a local community organization for people devasted by the flooding.

As much as she can, Kowalczyk continues to spread the message that precious photographs should be digitized. Hurrican Ian just enforced that notion even more.  “People love their pictures,” she says. “You never know if you’ll have flooding damage, or a fire. I definitely hope people hear this story and think, ‘I need to digitize my family photographs.’”

In the meantime, Kowalczyk is faced with the prospect of having to completely restructure her business, which mostly involves shooting weddings and family portraits in the Fort Myers area, which likely will take years to completely recover from the storm. “I don’t know what my business will look like a year from now,” Kowalczyk confesses. She’s already booked some sessions in other states, but regularly, she refunds clients who already paid deposits for shoots at venues that no longer exist due to Hurricane Ian.

Even still, she’s hopeful. “I guess I’ll just have to take my show on the road,” she says. In so many ways, what she has done over the past few weeks is a continuation of her passion for community service. “I am a lover of photography, and I’ll always have a camera in my hand,” Kowalczyk says. “But I really do love helping people as well.”