First Person: Vadel Abdel Gahder, photo restorationist


(Photograph by D.A. Peterson)
July 3, 2013

I can relate to the desire to restore photos. I don’t have any photos of my dad or my mom. I would pay anything to have one photo of them, to fix it for myself. When I see people bring in old photos and the look in their eyes, I think: This is me. That’s how exactly I would feel. It’s just like turning back the hands of time.

People have very high expectations when they hand that picture over. I am holding people’s memories, people’s past. It is a huge responsibility. Some pictures are beyond repair. There is only so much that software can do; it can’t bring back something that is not there. But if I can see a face, that is everything. You have to be very careful. You don’t want to
add in details that weren’t there. That misses the point of restoration. Faces are the hardest. If I can’t see the person’s face, I am very limited. If I can see one side, I will work with that and duplicate it, or I will ask the family for other photos of the same person or a relative with similar features. If you change a leaf in a picture, no one will notice. But if you mess with a face, make it slightly different, the customer will notice immediately. They will tell you, “This is not my mom.” And really, what right do I have to give them my version of the face they love?

I spend my day looking into the memories of others. I spend hours, sometimes 20 or more, with one person, staring into someone’s eyes. I feel like I know this person. But really, I often don’t know the story of the photo. I am not at the store when the person brings in the photo. But I do get pulled in, and my imagination goes. For example, in this one picture, I see my home in the background — a simple stone structure; we had those in West Africa. In another, there is an old man, staring right into the lens. There is no background. There is just his face, looking right at me. It is too personal for me. It reminds me of my father. I will never see him again. When he died, I hadn’t seen him in eight years. I have only blurry mental images. I remember he took me for ice cream. But I don’t remember what he wore, what I wore, what flavor of ice cream. A picture could help me fill in what’s missing.

I grew up in a desert. In my language, there are only five names for colors. People see brown and yellow there all day — no colors. Colors, details fascinate me. I used to watch American movies. I had no idea what was happening, but the images were enough.

I left my country because I had to. I was a political activist. I wanted to see a new Mauritania, but I couldn’t change it, and it became dangerous for me. I left with nothing. When I came here, it was me and 200 bucks in my pocket. I see the irony. I spend my days changing what people see, surrounded by their memories and family. I have no family here. In pictures, I can change things for the better. I can take away scars and the scratches. I can’t Photoshop the world in front of me, but I can try to have a different life here, full of color.

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