Breathing new life into old photos of fallen soldiers

July 27, 2022 - 09:16
Thanks to the efforts of a group of young photoshop experts in Hà Nội, old, battered and creased images of fallen soldiers were repaired and turned into vivid colour photographs that look like they were taken yesterday.

Thu Hà & Vân Nguyễn

HÀ NỘI — Sixty-year-old Hoàng Văn Léo could not hold back his tears as he held in his hands portrait photographs of his two elder brothers.

It's been more than 50 years since he last saw his brothers alive, and now it feels like once again they are together.

This meeting has been made so thanks to computer generated imagery, taking an old, battered and creased photograph and turning it into something new.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Léo’s brothers, Hoàng Văn Mèo and Hoàng Khắc Mẫn, joined the army when the resistance war against America was at its peak. Tragedy struck the family in 1973 when their deaths were pronounced, one after another. Devastated by the loss, Léo’s mother died a year later.

Until now, the remains of Léo’s brothers are still unaccounted for, which has made the healing process even more challenging for the whole family. The only things that remained of his brothers were two stained black-and-white portrait photographs, as small as a matchbox. The photos were taken on the days they joined the army.

The portrait of Hoàng Khắc Mẫn, Léo' second older brother. VNS Photo Vân Nguyễn

Now, thanks to the efforts of a group of young photoshop experts in Hà Nội, these old images were repaired and turned into vivid colour photographs that look like they were taken yesterday.

“When my eldest brother went to the battlefield, I was only six years old so I can just vaguely remember how he looked," Léo said.

“We had the photos enlarged before, but they were still in black and white and blurry. Only now that I can see my brothers’ faces clearly, I recognise that my older son resembles my eldest brother while my younger son looks like my second brother.

“These images look so real and soulful. I am very touched. Last night my family could not sleep knowing that the photos had been restored. I kept thinking about this and could not hold back my emotions.”

Léo and his family left their home at 5am and travelled a 160-kilometre journey from northern Lạng Sơn Province to Hà Nội to meet and express their gratitude to the team behind the photographic work.

Lê Quyết Thắng, 32, head of the team, said he was surprised to see Léo’s whole family came all the way to collect the photos.

Their joy and enthusiasm is something he and his team could not imagine when they first started this voluntary project.

One of the more than 200 old stained pictures which were repaired by the team. Photo courtesy of Team Lee

In more than a month, Thắng’s team of five photoshop experts has helped revive more than 200 old photos of fallen soldiers nationwide, all free of charge.

The idea for this campaign came from a request to restore a photo of a fallen soldier he received on his Facebook page on April 30, National Liberation Day.

“I was really curious about the story behind that photo. I checked and read the story very carefully," Thắng said.

"I thought that behind such a photo there is always a story with lots of tears and also heroic moments in the past that, somehow, we seem to have forgotten.

“I told my friends and my students and we then had an idea that we could reach out to the fallen soldiers' families and restore their old photos. We hope that this campaign will help the young generation like us remember the sacrifice of the older generations for the nation’s independence.”

According to official estimates, more than 1.1 million soldiers under Việt Nam People’s Army have died during wars in Việt Nam since 1945.

The team’s initial plan was to help restore 75 photos as this year marks the 75th anniversary of War Invalids and Martyrs’ Day (July 27). But the demand for such work is so huge it exceeds their imagination. Only one day after the team posted the campaign information on social media, requests flooded in from families across the country.

“Now we have received more than 2,000 requests and have done more than 200 photos. We just forgot about the initial number of 75 photos,” Thắng said.

The team uses Photoshop to restore the photos, turn them into colour, print them and get them framed before sending them to the families, normally by post.

A photo is carefully put into a frame by the team members. VNS Photo Vân Nguyễn

On average, it takes about four to six hours to finish a photo. But in some cases in which photos are just sketches or in dilapidated conditions, it will take around three days to finish.

Thắng said: “The most difficult thing is we have to work in the night time, from 8pm to 3 or 4am, because we have work in the daytime. Sometimes, as we are all too focused on the story behind the dead soldiers’ photos, we could feel a chill go down our spines.”

Like Léo’s family, some other relatives would come to Thắng’s place to pick up the photos. In some special cases, the team would arrange trips to bring the photos back to the families who do not live too far away from Hà Nội.

“When we give them the photos, the families were all touched and cried a lot. There were tears from the elders. They even laughed in tears. It is very difficult for me to describe the feeling at that time. But that has become our motivation and we're going to try harder to fulfil this task,” Thắng said.

“This campaign is just the beginning. We will try to do more to help and pay tribute to the families of fallen soldiers who have devoted their lives to the country’s independence.”

Léo's family pose for a photo with the photoshop team members, holding the portraits of his brothers wrapped in the national flag. VNS Photo Thu Hà

Like any family of fallen soldiers, Léo and his family members regard the photos of his brothers as a treasure. Before saying goodbye to the team, they wrapped the framed photos in a national flag that they have brought from home.

“The red colour of the flag represents the colour of blood. Millions of soldiers have fallen down for national independence,” Léo said.

“I hope that in the future the team will continue this work to preserve these photos for future generations, reminding them that many people have sacrificed their lives for us to have a happy life and for the nation to enjoy the independence we are having today.” VNS