He holds his breath and unwinds the reel by the light of the eerie red bulb. One wrong move and he’ll wreck the negatives. His hands are shaking as he gently shakes the tank. Now, all he can do is wait. But when the waiting is over and he unspools the reel again, he never expects the faint outline to leave him trembling all over. Just what had he found?
Martijn van Oers, a Netherlands native and photographer, was infatuated with photography from a young age. He was particularly drawn to old photographs – especially when they had an eerie or sinister undercurrent. So, when he received his first camera on his 12th birthday, he couldn’t have been happier. Naturally, his mother was worried. And she was right to be.
You see, Martijn wasn’t like other children. Instead of spending time with friends and participating in normal activities for a boy his age, Martijn chose to spend his time alone. He’d wander through the streets of Breda, photographing the old crumbling buildings and exploring abandoned places. To his mother’s dismay, his obsession with what she perceived to be macabre only grew as the years passed.
When Martijn was a teenager, his walls were filled with the photographs he had collected. From floor to ceiling, photographs took up every inch of wall space. But these weren’t “happy-snaps”, as his mother liked to say. Rather, they were snapshots of the town’s darker side. Some he had taken himself, but others were photos he had found in thrift stores. So when he found an old camera in an antique store years later, he just couldn’t resist.
On one fateful morning in 2017, Martijn was walking through town when he found his feet taking him toward the doors of a thrift store close by. Not one to pass up an opportunity to find vintage photographs, but running short on time, he promised himself he’d just have a quick look inside. After scanning the shelves but not seeing anything interesting, he was about to turn to leave when something caught his eye.
There, on the lowest shelf, was a vintage camera. But it wasn’t just any camera – it was a Zeiss Ikon 520/2. And when he took a closer look, he was surprised to see that it was in amazing condition. In fact, it didn’t look like it had been used at all! He knew right then and there that he had to have it. It would be the perfect gift for his wife, he thought happily. But Martijn had no idea what he was really taking home that day.
“When I came home and gave the camera to my wife as a gift, she was over the moon. After dinner I told her I was considering using the camera to take pictures with since all the mechanics from the camera seemed to be in pristine condition,” Martijn said in an interview later. “I normally shoot all my photos with high-end gear. So working with an old-school piece of equipment seemed like a lot of fun.” But Martijn never dreamed to stumble upon something so life-altering.
Excited by his new toy, Martijn began to inspect the old camera’s inner workings. But when he opened it up, there was something inside. “I wanted to see if the camera still worked, if everything opened and if the wheels were still turning. To my great surprise, there was a roll…” But what Martijn didn’t realize was that his life was about to change forever.
It wasn’t lost on Martijn that what he had in his hands had all the makings of a real-life horror story. Would he regret developing the photos? He knew that once he did, he would never be able to unsee them. But what would happen if he didn’t? He had to know what secrets the old camera contained — whatever the consequences.
Martijn had been obsessed with all things macabre during his teens, so naturally, he was familiar with the story of Fritz Haarmann — the man who had terrorized Hanover during the 1920s. 27 teens and children went missing from 1918 to 1924. Martijn had read the man’s personal journals and knew he had had a camera, which was a rare luxury at the time. But the camera had never been found.
Could what Martijn had in his hands be the missing camera? After all, Hanover was only a hop, skip and jump away. The thought was terrifying. Worse still, the roll of film inside could be scarring. Did he really want to toy with the possibility that the camera could have belonged to a serial killer?
Martijn thought long and hard before he made a decision. Should he hand the camera in to the authorities? Or should he try to develop them before he did anything too hasty? Was he overreacting? But, in the end, he knew that he simply had to know what was on the camera’s roll of film.
He looked carefully at the roll of film again. The words “EXPOSE” were emblazoned on its side. “I thought that probably meant that the roll has been exposed and used,” he explains. Martijn knew that the camera was old, but just how old was the roll of film? He began to research, searching for the brand of film and the year it was made. And the date he arrived at sent a chill down his spine.
“I found out the camera was built around 1924,” Martijn said. That would make the camera at least 89 years old. The age of the film made it unlikely that any of the images would have survived for so many years, but Martijn knew he had to try. He called his friend Johan Holleman, an experienced photographic developer, but the news wasn’t good.
Johan told him that it would be extremely difficult to develop the old film, but after some persuasion, he agreed to try. It seemed that the mystery of what images lay in wait was just too great for him to pass up. But could the photographs have survived so many decades? There was only one way to find out.
Because the roll of film couldn’t be opened and exposed to sunlight, Martijn and Johan couldn’t see if there were even images to salvage. But, determined to try, Martijn found himself in Johan’s kitchen one Tuesday morning in total darkness. When the developing process was complete, both men were astonished to see that there were faint outlines on the negatives. But what images had lain hidden for so long inside the old camera?
Martijn hung the negatives up in the shower and began to frantically dry them with a blow dryer to find out if the images were intact. Now that they had opened Pandora’s box, there was no closing it again. All they could do was wait and see. Finally, the negatives were dry enough for the next step.
When the negatives were finally dry, the men grabbed a projector to inspect the photographs. There were four images in total. Although blurry, they were able to make out what the photographer had captured all those years ago. There was a woman staring back at them, like a ghost from the past. She was standing beside a cement pathway running along a mountainside.
The subsequent photographs were similar to the first, with the same woman standing eerily in the foreground. But who was this woman? And what was the story behind these decades-old photographs? The men were shaking with excitement – their curiosity getting the better of them. They had to find out. The fourth and final photo provided some answers to the mystery.
The fourth photograph had an elderly man as its subject. He had the camera’s carry case slung over his shoulder. The men concluded that he must have been the one who had taken the photographs. But ultimately, Martijn’s extraordinary find left them with more questions than answers. Where had the photos been taken? And when?
That’s when Martijn had a brilliant idea. He decided to post the old photographs on Facebook. Maybe someone could help him solve this mystery. Shortly after, one of his friends reached out with an interesting photo of their own, and it helped to unravel the mystery a little further. But just how far was Martijn willing to go?
The man who reached out on Facebook after seeing Martijn’s post was convinced that he knew where the photos had been taken. He sent Martijn a Google Street View of Biarritz in France. And when Martijn inspected it further, he became convinced, too. Then, someone else reached out and cracked the case wide open.
A Dutch woman named Marion Jurrjens recognized the figures in the photographs immediately. The people in the photos were her grandparents. And the person who had owned the camera had been a man named Theo Lammers. Furthermore, she knew that he had visited Biarritz with his wife, Elisabeth Lammers-Berveling. Upon hearing the news, Martijn knew exactly what he had to do.
Marion had been born in the Netherlands but was currently living in Canada. Martijn knew it would be a costly exercise to travel there to deliver the long-lost photos in person, but he felt like he had to try. So he set up a GoFundMe account to cover the travel cost, and soon, donations were pouring in from all over the world!
Martjin traveled to Canada to reunite Marion with the photographs of her beloved grandparents, and when he arrived she was beyond thrilled. “I love all of the pictures and I would like to keep them all together as that is how they are meant to be,” Marion said happily. “My house is already rather full since my grandfather was also a painter. But I hope I can find a spot to put them on the wall so I can remember this whole event.”