Holding his breath, he unwinds the reel in the eerie red bulb’s light. He can’t afford to make one wrong move and ruin the negatives. With shaking hands, he gently shakes the tank from side to side. All he can do now is watch and wait. Finally, the wait is over. But when he begins to unspool the negatives again, the faint images that were starting to emerge sent a chill straight down his spine. He began to tremble as he realized the magnitude of what he’d just done. Just what had he stumbled upon?
An Unhealthy Obsession
Netherlands native Martijn van Oers had been obsessed with photography from a young age. He especially loved the eerie feeling that vintage photographs evoked in him, and he tried to capture that particular feeling when he started to take his own images. On Martijn’s 12th birthday, he was presented with his very own camera. But his mother found herself growing increasingly concerned about his new favorite hobby — more specifically, his obsession with exploring the sinister underbelly of the town and catching it in photographs. A mother’s instincts are rarely wrong.
A Morbid Fascination
Martijn wasn’t like the other children his age. When other boys were off with their friends, he preferred to be alone. Wandering through the streets of Breda with his camera by his side, his imagination could run wild. His favorite spots were the crumbling ruins of old buildings and abandoned places on the outskirts of town. The adrenaline of exploring these dangerous and forgotten pockets of urban decay made him feel alive, and he wanted nothing more than to catch a glimpse of the spirits who still lingered there. As he grew older, his obsession with the macabre only grew — much to his mother’s dismay.
When Martijn became a teenager he had already had built an extensive portfolio of work. His bedroom walls were plastered with photographs — some of which he had taken himself, and some that he had collected from newspapers or found in antique dealerships. But these weren’t “happy-snaps” that he’d collected, they were snapshots of the town’s hidden underbelly. So when Martijn found himself inexplicably drawn to an antique camera in a thrift store years later, the mystery was too much to bear.
An Undeniable Pull
The fateful day took place in 2017. Martijn was taking a stroll through the town when he suddenly found his feet moving toward the doors of a thrift store a block away. He was looking for some inspiration for his latest photography project. Maybe he would find what he was looking for inside? He let his intuition guide him idly down the aisles until his eyes fell on exactly what he had been looking for.
The Zeiss Ikon
On a low shelf, a vintage camera squatted like a shiny black toad. Upon closer inspection, Martijn realized that it was a Zeiss Ikon 520/2. Even better, it was in pristine condition — hardly used. Fate had flung him in the camera’s path for a reason, and although he wasn’t sure what that reason was, he knew that the camera had been meant for him to find. Acting on pure instinct, he picked it up and took it to the counter to buy it. If his wife asked him why he had bought it, he would just say that he’d bought it for her as a gift. Martijn was ecstatic with his purchase, but he had no idea that he’d be getting a lot more than he bargained for.
A “Gift” For His Wife
“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 explained. “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.” Little did he know, what he would find inside would prove to be anything but “fun.”
More Than Meets The Eye
The next morning, Martijn could barely contain his excitement. He got up uncharacteristically early to inspect his new toy more thoroughly. But when he opened it up, something rattled 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 once he decided to develop it, there would be no going back.
It wasn’t lost on Martijn that what he had in his hands had all the makings of a real-life horror story. Pressing his eye up against the lens, he wondered who had done so before him. Whose eye had looked through that lens? And what had they captured there, on film? He knew that once he had made his decision, there would be no way of undoing it. What secrets did the old camera contain? And would he regret seeing them?
Wild speculations began to run through Martijn’s mind. What if this camera had belonged to someone involved in a crime? Back in his teenage years, Martijn had scoured old newspapers at the local library to satiate his fascination with all things macabre, but he had returned to one particular story over and over again. During the 1920s, the town of Hanover had been terrorized by a man named Fritz Haarmann. After he was caught, his personal journals were released to the public. But the authorities had never found his camera.
Martijn began to view his new “toy” in a completely different light. It was a far-fetched idea, but the more Martijn dwelled on it, the more frightened he became. It was not impossible that the camera could have made its way from Hanover to Breda — a mere 4 hours’ drive away by bus. Furthermore, not many people owned a camera like this in the 1920s. The thought was terrifying. Even worse was that there was a roll of film still inside, just waiting to be developed.
Martijn had let his imagination run wild when he had found the film. Perhaps he had even let it get the better of him. Hours passed, and he still had a decision to make. He weighed his options. He could hand the camera into the authorities, but he felt like he could be overreacting. He didn’t want to waste anybody’s time when he had no evidence other than the slow, creeping feeling that had started to engulf him. Should he trust his intuition? On the other hand, a burning sense of curiosity had started to gnaw at his troubled mind. He just had to know what was on the roll of film. But first, he had to do some research.
Inspecting the roll of film gingerly, he noticed that it had the words “EXPOSE” printed on its side. “I thought that probably meant that the roll has been exposed and used,” he explained. Martijn knew that this particular make and model of camera was from the 1920s, but that didn’t tell him how old the roll of film actually was. He fired up his laptop and furiously began to research, searching for the brand of film and the year it was made on Google. The date that came back sent shivers down his spine.
The Date Checks Out
“I found out the camera was built around 1924,” Martijn said. And, to add fuel to the fire, the date correlated with Fritz Haarmann’s reign of terror. That meant that the camera was at least 89 years old. It would be a miracle if the images on the film had survived. That gave Martijn the confidence he needed to try to recover them on his own. He resolved that he’d let fate take the wheel — if there were no images, perhaps it was for the best. He knew the chances were slim. On a call to his good friend Johan Holleman, an experienced photographic developer, he laid his suspicions on the table.
A Small Chance
Johan told Martijn that developing the film would be almost impossible — it would take an enormous amount of care and patience, and even then they may not get to see what was on the film. But Martijn was insistent, and eventually, Johan relented. The prospect of solving an 89-year-old mystery was just too tempting. Could the negatives possibly have survived the ravages of time? And if they had, did the men really want to know the truth? There was only one way to find out.
The Mystery Unfolds
The roll of film couldn’t simply be opened up and exposed to sunlight, so Martijn and Johan had no way of knowing if there were images to salvage. On a cold Tuesday morning, The men set up in Johan’s kitchen in total darkness. Carefully bathing the negatives in a chemical bath, the men were surprised when they began to see the faint outlines emerging. The images were finally going to be released from their longtime prison. But was it a mistake?
Martijn, unable to wait any longer, hung the negatives up in the shower and began to frantically dry them with a blow dryer to hasten the development process. They had opened Pandora’s box, and it was too late to go back now. After what seemed like an age, the negatives were finally dry enough to be viewed.
The Images Revealed
In total, there were 4 photographs. Johan and Martijn quickly loaded the negatives onto a projector and adjusted the first blurry image. Martijn’s eyes widened in disbelief as the woman’s face came into view — it all seemed so surreal. She was standing on a pathway that wound around a mountainside like a ghostly ribbon. Her face was turned slightly to the side as if admiring the roaring ocean beneath her.
The next two photographs were similar to the first. The same woman posed eerily in various locations. But who was she? Martijn was relieved to find that his wild speculations of the camera’s origin had been unfounded, but he was so wrapped up in this new mystery that he hardly felt the tiny pang of disappointment. Entranced, the men flipped to the next image.
The final, fourth photograph depicted an elderly man. The camera’s telltale carry case was slung over his shoulder. He must be the owner of the camera, and also the photographer. But the men’s astonishing find had only left them with more unanswered questions. Where were these photos taken? And how could they find the camera’s original owner?
Taking To Social Media
Then, Martijn had an idea. He knew that the power of social media has been proven time and time again, but would it work this time? Posting the photographs on Facebook, he hoped that someone would come forward to help him solve the mystery. In just a few hours, the photos had been shared hundreds of times. Then, someone posted a photo of their own that helped crack the case.
A Familiar Location
A man posted a Google Street View of Biarritz in France, where he thought the mysterious photos had been taken. Martijn inspected it carefully and knew he was right. It was the same place that the woman had posed in the photographs, with the same coastline and cement pathway. Then, Martijn received another message on Facebook. This time, the case was blown wide open.
A Family Member
Marion Jurrjens, a Dutch woman, recognized the photos on Martijn’s Facebook post almost immediately as her grandparents. She revealed that the man who had taken the pictures was Theo Lammers. She also knew that he and his wife, Elisabeth Lammers-Bervelin, had visited Biarritz. Martijn was astonished by this new revelation, but he knew exactly what he had to do.
Marion was born in the Netherlands but had later moved to Canada. Martijn understood that traveling there would be expensive, but he knew he had to deliver the old photographs of her grandparents to her in person. He created a GoFundMe account to raise the funds, and soon the donations came pouring in. People all over the world wanted to see the long-lost images reunited with their family.
Returning Lost Memories
Martijn traveled all the way from Breda to Canada to return the photographs to Marion. When she saw them, she was ecstatic. “I love all of the pictures and I would like to keep them all together as that is how they are meant to be,” she said. “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.”