"I grew up with sand in my pants in my whole life," she said. "It's that moment where you sit back and think these could be my pictures."
For those without photo scanners, Esti has teamed up with local New Jersey businesses like Joe Leone's specialty food stores in Sea Girt and Point Pleasant as drop-off locations for lost-and-found photos that are then collected and uploaded to the For Shore Photos Facebook page.
"Photography is so common and ubiquitous that we take it for granted, and we don't realize how important it is to us," said Marina Berio, who heads the general studies program at the International Center of Photography. "It's the despair of losing part of yourself. Your very memories are being taken away from you."
Jenika McDavitt, a photographer who studied psychology at Yale and runs the blog "Psychology for Photographers," agrees.
"We as humans become habituated to our environment. We forget the way that grandma's house looked. When you find a photo that shows those things that you are habituated to and you forgot, it brings back all those memories that you forgot to stop and remember," she said.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Sue Weber of Erie, Pa., also recognized the power of photography and started The Picture Project.
After seeing a reporter on television hold up a picture that was found in the middle of the street of a child in a dance costume, Weber had a revelation similar to Van Houten's.
"Then it hit me -- many families on the Gulf Coast had lost their entire history in family photos due to Katrina and I should do something about it," she said.
Partnering with Kodak, the Biloxi Sun Herald and United Van lines, among others, The Picture Project was able to return thousands of photos to their rightful owners.
Weber's revelation also came about because of the coffee table book "The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau," which sat in front of her during the news report.
Weber had attended a presentation at the Erie Museum by the book's author, Ann Weiss, several years prior.
During a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1986, Weiss discovered an archive of more than 2,000 photographs confiscated from Jewish families at the death camp.
"They wanted to bring their emblem of who they were, and they wanted to remember the lives that they lived and the people that they loved. Or even, just remember the people they themselves once were," said Weiss.
Weiss fought red tape to obtain the pictures and after doing so, traveled around the world tracking down any survivors, family members and friends that they might belong to.
Being stripped of family memories in the Holocaust is very different from losing belongings in a natural disaster, Weiss pointed out, but the end result of both is profound loss.
"I think all photos are incredibly important because photos are the emblem of our lives. They're tangible proof that we lived, that we're here and when there's a natural disaster -- after the people and after the pets -- what's the first thing we want to save? It's always the pictures," she said.
"Pictures encapsulate our lives, our dreams, our essence of who we are."