In search of lost photos

Today we entrust our photos to various information stores. On a hard drive, a phone, a USB stick, any cloud. But sometimes the technology is missing, tearing the images of the past into a black hole. It happened to our reporter. Here is his search for them.

Posted yesterday at 11am

Catherine Handfeld

Catherine Handfeld
The press

Dizziness, worry, eagerness to find a solution. This is how I felt when I realized my photos from May 2013 to March 2014 were gone. My son was born on January 1stah May 2013. That means I had lost almost all the pictures from the first year of his life.

Years ago I had put all my photos and videos I took from 2006 to 2014 on an (old) external hard drive. When I got a new computer, I wanted to copy the contents of the hard drive to it, but the computer couldn’t read it. I was able to recover the vast majority of photos on an older laptop, but I missed that ten month period backed up only to the failed hard drive.

A mechanic found on a classifieds site analyzed it using software. His verdict? Unrelated to. “It seems corrupt. »

I found a few shots here and there from the period in question, but I was still missing hundreds and hundreds of photos, as well as dozens of videos. The son’s first smile, his first meal, his first words…

  • Our journalist's son a few days after his birth, in one of the few photos found elsewhere

    PHOTO SUPPLIED BY CATHERINE HANDFIELD

    Our journalist’s son a few days after his birth, in one of the few photos found elsewhere

  • Our journalist's son, 2 months old, in one of the few photos found elsewhere

    PHOTO SUPPLIED BY CATHERINE HANDFIELD

    Our journalist’s son, 2 months old, in one of the few photos found elsewhere

  • Our journalist's son, 6 months old, in one of the few photos found elsewhere

    PHOTO SUPPLIED BY CATHERINE HANDFIELD

    Our journalist’s son, 6 months old, in one of the few photos found elsewhere

  • Halloween 2013 photos have been lost except for this photo which was recovered on a different medium

    PHOTO SUPPLIED BY CATHERINE HANDFIELD

    Halloween 2013 photos have been lost except for this photo which was recovered on a different medium

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A common problem

This story of a failed hard drive doesn’t surprise Imré Antal, president of data recovery company Chronodisk, in Montreal. When a customer knocks on their door, it’s usually to retrieve family photos and videos stored on a broken medium.

“For fifteen years, people have had such an ability to take series of pictures with their cell phones that they no longer print them out,” says the trained computer scientist, formerly a journalist for computer trade journals. If a hard drive fails, we lose 10, 15 years of photos. »


PHOTO MARTIN CHAMBERLAND, THE PRESS

Our journalist shows Imré Antal his broken hard drive.

“Rarely in humanity have we trusted a technology that people know so little about,” adds Imré Antal, who we met at his boutique in Plateau-Mont-Royal. “People are surprised that it breaks down when it’s very fragile and very miniaturized. »

During our visit, a customer, Luc Lefebvre, comes in with his old computer tower under his arm. When he opened his computer a few years ago, a black screen greeted him. “There were photos from the first three years of my children’s lives,” he explained to Imré Antal.

He hadn’t saved her anywhere else either.


PHOTO MARTIN CHAMBERLAND, THE PRESS

Imré Antal takes the hard drive out of the case.

When Luc Lefebvre greets the situation with philosophy, other clients arrive distraught and ready to do whatever it takes to regain their memories. Fifteen years ago, data recovery companies were charging $400 just for the estimate, points out Imré Antal, whose company offers a free estimate and a clear price list.

reading head

I use this visit to Imré Antal’s shop to show him my broken hard drive.

With hard drives, failures can be software, electronic, or mechanical in origin. Based on the noise of the hard disk, Imré Antal suspects that it is the read head, a classic mechanical problem of hard disks, which also react allergically to microshocks, moisture and heat.


PHOTO MARTIN CHAMBERLAND, THE PRESS

The playback head is similar to that of a turntable.

The hard drive is no longer recognized by the computer. The first data recovery attempt, which lasted several hours, may have killed the already weakened read head. If the read head has damaged the surface of the platter, the underlying data is irretrievably lost. “There is no university in the world that teaches data recovery,” says Imré Antal.

The computer specialist opens the hard drive in a “clean room” – a large box that blows filtered air to prevent dust from damaging the hard drive. Fortunately, the tray inside appears to be in perfect condition.

Since a new read head has to be ordered, replaced and the firmware reprogrammed, the error is considered fatal. The data recovery chances are estimated at 75%. The company sends an offer within 48 hours.


PHOTO MARTIN CHAMBERLAND, THE PRESS

The white room

A piece of life

Valérie V. L’Épine knows exactly how it feels to lose photos. She’s experienced it twice rather than once.

The first was in 2015 after a burglary. They stole his computer and external hard drive, which contained photos from 10 years ago. And in early 2020, she dropped her phone on the floor.

“When I think about it, I feel like part of my life no longer exists,” says Valérie, an archivist by trade.

Not only internal or external hard drives are missing. Sometimes it’s USB flash drives, removable memory cards from cameras, solid state drives (a different technology than hard drives) and – of course – cell phones.

Fannie Lemay kept her photos on her phone. And one day – she doesn’t know when, why or how – her photos from May and November 2016 disappeared, both on her phone and in the Google Photos storage service.

This period spanned her son’s early childhood but also a pivotal period in his life: the diagnosis of brain cancer, his surgery and his recovery. Fannie called Google customer service to no avail.

“It may be a blessing because these are intense photos, but I would have liked to have shown them to my son later so he knows what happened. The young woman now copies the photos, which she definitely doesn’t want to lose, onto her computer and onto Google Drive.

For his part, professional photographer Richard Anber suffered a hard drive failure that has been going on for fifteen years. He was luckier: he was able to get his contents back for a fee of over $1,000.

Today he copies his professional photos onto two external hard drives. “And every four years I replace my computer’s internal hard drive,” says Richard Anber, who points out that a simple electrical surge can cause a breakdown.

Imré Antal advises customers to replace their hard drive every three years… and invest in a quality aluminum external hard drive. For more security, you can also use cloud computing technology (the famous Clouds).

think about it

After 48 hours I receive the quotation from Chronodisk.

The parts to be found and delivered, the handling in the clean room, the know-how: all of this has its price. And in my case it would be $1034. If the data recovery fails, I only have to pay the $138 deposit.

Are 10 months worth of photos worth $1034? While waiting to make a decision (and my budget will allow), I slip the disc into a case with a handful of grit to absorb the moisture, as Imré Antal suggests.

For the time being I will keep here (and in my head) the memories of my son’s first year of life.

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