The Happiness Brussels team, Geoffrey Hantson, CCO and Simon Schuurman, director/editor, speak to LBB about rebuilding memories for flood victims in Belgium
In Belgium, July of 2020 not only brought with it the devastation of the pandemic, but also destruction caused by some of the worst floods the Liège province has ever experienced. The tragedy meant homes were destroyed and memories were washed away.
Lotte Smets, a clinical psychologist who helped with the campaign explains, "People are afraid to forget. That is exactly why a photograph offers such an enormous sense of security. Photos trigger memories inside the brain, explaining their huge emotional value. In the event of loss, the emotional value of a photo becomes even more important.”
With these findings, Happiness Brussels and Canon combined their efforts to support the victims and together they created ReStory. The project aims to restore as many flood-damaged photos as possible, and bring back those memories that so many cherish. So far, hundreds of people have reached out with thousands of pictures to restore to their former state. Currently, 70% of pictures have been returned to their glory days, giving their owners something to smile about.
Talking us through the process of restoration, the ideation and creation of the campaign are Happiness Brussels’ chief creative officer Geoffrey Hanston and director/editor Simon Schuurman, who speak to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani.
LBB> This campaign is a lovely way to support the Belgian flood survivors in a way that allows them to hold on to happy memories. We know you saw some moving TV interviews from victims but can you tell us more about how the idea came about?
Geoffrey> Actually, the first thing we did after seeing the TV interviews was to speak to a trauma psychologist to understand more deeply and fully why people that just lost everything are sometimes sadder about the lost pictures than about their destroyed homes. Once we heard that specifically in trauma, when you lost everything, the only thing you can hold on to are memories and memories are mostly triggered by photos – we immediately linked it to our client Canon.
The tens of thousands of flood-damaged pictures are a tragedy of a priceless emotional value and a tragedy at the heart of Canon’s core business - photography. In sync with its purpose, Canon immediately took action and provided all the funding and technology necessary to help restore the flood-damaged photos to help the emotional recovery of the people in the disaster area.
LBB> How did you find the survivors you featured and what about their specific stories moved you to include them?
Geoffrey> We went to the Red Cross shelter of one of the most seriously affected villages, Pepinster. There we talked about the initiative and started getting in touch with the community. In no time, we met people who had flood-damaged pictures or knew people with damaged pictures. We asked them to share the story of the one picture that meant the most to them, and what it would mean to them if we could restore it. We asked for their permission to share these stories in order to be able to spread a national call for damaged pictures.
LBB> The campaign gives viewers a real feel of the devastation that occurred. Why did you choose the interview style format for this and why does it work so well?
Geoffrey> It’s the truth, and that’s what this style is. I believe that whatever trend or story is out there, the truth is always the best option. So, we decided to just show the truth, and film it in a way that each shot became a framed painting of the truth.
LBB> How long did it take to create the campaign from start to finish?
Geoffrey> Only 4 weeks. We gathered a small team at the agency, at Canon and at Object Care (an extra partner for the drying and cleaning process of the damaged pictures.) Together, we worked long hours to get the whole campaign out quickly and to help the region recover emotionally as soon as possible.
LBB> Can you give us a brief overview of the restoration process? How long does it take and what’s involved?
Geoffrey> The aim is to restore all flood-damaged photographs to their original state as best as we could. Unfortunately, about 30% were too damaged to be able to restore, but the silver lining is that 70% of them COULD be restored!
In essence, the most important part is the drying and smoothing process, where we slowly ‘air-dry’ all pictures (takes about one week) before carefully cleaning them with cotton swabs. Then we do the scanning and digitally processing before printing them in high quality and storing them digitally, so that they don’t get lost again. All applications to restore pictures can be done at www.restory.photo. The ReStory-team will then travel to collect the photos. And return them after four weeks.
LBB> The video has a wonderfully cohesive feel in terms of composition. Can you share how you achieved this during the filming process?
Simon> When we arrived for the first time, we were hit with the immense destruction that happened in this region. I watched the news like everybody else and saw the images, but it is difficult to realise how bad it is until you are physically there. I realised that filming destruction is actually very difficult to capture and communicate to viewers.
To do this as best as we could, I decided to have some form of damage or destruction in pretty much every shot. This really became a sort of glue regarding the composition and the flow of a movie.
I was a bit afraid that this approach wouldn’t work while shooting in the laboratory where they cleaned the pictures. It was a very white and clean environment. But actually, this environment worked as a contrast to the dirtiness of the pictures, which really made the pictures pop. They almost feel like true artefacts.
Then together with the use of well-aligned fixed shots, mixed with slow-motion moving shots, noise effects in the video, the sound and the music, everything felt in place and worked out really well.
LBB> The consistency with colour, tempo and feel would have been achieved during the editing process. Were there any challenges?
Simon> I think the hardest part was finding a balance in everything. There were all these ingredients: the emotional stories, the destruction, the beauty of the pictures, etc. The balance in the editing process was difficult because it was finding a median between being overly emotional and dramatic, and being too light.
So, we had to balance on a very thin line to make the edit work.
Music and sound design were crucial factors here. The fact that we didn’t use music at the beginning of the film, and only used sound design, making the images of the destruction even more intense, with the serenity of the river flowing and wind blowing.
It was a complex edit to make and we had a lot of different versions, but in the end, I’m really happy with the result.
LBB> What has the response been? How many people have got in touch about having their personal photos restored?
Geoffrey> Hundreds of people have gotten in touch, thousands of photos were submitted and picked up by the team. We already restored and returned a few hundred, but the restoration will continue to go strong over the next few months until finally, we manage to restore as many flood-damaged photos as we possibly can.