In the mid 90s I used to be a photo technician. Those were the days when all you could do on phones was dial a number and if you wanted to take photos, you bought a camera containing actual rolls of film that you had to drop off at the store to be developed. Amazing how times change.
As far as jobs go I couldn’t complain. The pay and hours were solid and I was pretty much my own boss, but there was one thing I never really got used to. Looking at the photos of complete strangers always felt slightly intrusive, even if they knew I was doing it. Spending hour after hour in an ominously lit dark room filled with chemicals so you could take a peek at the memories of people you had never even met is inherently voyeuristic. It’s almost like going through someone’s stuff. So that’s why I always made sure to not get too interested in what photos I was developing. Some days I liked to pretend I was in a government lab developing film for some kind of top secret project, but the reality was nowhere near that. Usually the most exciting pictures I dealt with were holiday pictures of parents wearing ugly Christmas sweaters before they were a joke.
One day, I was developing some photos from a drop off order. I had done the initial process and was now checking my work to make sure it had come out ok. Everything looked fine. The colors were all normal and the images were just as they should be. Since this was back when someone could have red eyes in pictures, they weren’t exactly the model of clarity and detail we have now, but they were acceptable.
I was just about to put these away and start on my next order when for some reason, one of the photos caught my attention. Most of these pictures were shots of the outdoors that someone took near a park or something. There were some beautiful shots of a lake filled in on every side by dense pine trees. It was gorgeous to look at, but there was something a little off. One of the last pictures showed a family of 5 gathered together in front of a cluster of blue spruce trees near a pond in the afternoon. In the left corner near the edge of the shot, there was the shape of a person. There wasn’t much you could tell, but it was definitely a person standing there, wearing what looked like a black shirt and blue jeans. It’s clear from the picture that the photographer was either ignoring the person, or more likely, had no idea the person was even there. There was nothing obviously alarming about it, but it reminded me of those blurry bigfoot pictures that were on the front page of some of the tabloids located out in front. It was something about the lone person lurking out in the woods that looked slightly creepy. But a random person making it into the shot happened a ton of pictures, especially back then. So I finished the order, went on with the next batch, and forgot about the picture.
About three weeks later, I was going through a totally different order when I found another strange picture. Except this one was different. Instead of the great outdoors, this picture was from a birthday party of some sort. In the picture I was looking at, everyone was inside a massive dining room and clustered around the big dining room table while the birthday girl, a blond girl who looked to be about twenty, was blowing out the candles on her extravagant white birthday cake. But what caught my attention was the large bay window that everyone was facing away from. There was a man standing outside closely watching everyone inside. He was average looking from what I could tell, but what caught my attention was his expression. He wasn’t standing out there with a woeful expression that said he felt left out. No, this guy was intently watching them, like one watches an animal at the zoo. I wasn’t 100 percent sure, but I thought that he may have been looking at whoever was taking the photo.
Either way, I had no idea what to think. Was this a relative about to pull a prank on the birthday girl or something? I’ve seen plenty of awkward and downright weird family photos, but this one seemed different. I’d seen enough awkward family photos to know that you can recognize them almost immediately. They have a unique charm to them that gives you a good laugh, but in a heartwarming “oh my family is just like that,” way.
Since there wasn’t much of anything I could do about a weird picture, I checked the rest of the pictures, packaged it up, and kept on with my work. But this time I couldn’t shake the image.
Over a month later, there was another weird picture. The setting this time was at some kind of pool party. From the looks of the flag themed décor, it was some kind of Fourth of July get together. It looked like a fun time; plenty of people waving sparklers and eating grilled hamburgers and hot dogs in between taking a dip in an in ground swimming pool. As the day turned into nighttime, the pictures now showed people gathered around a large campfire where they roasted marshmallows.
My stomach dropped when I saw someone in a picture who looked just like the guy from the birthday party picture. What gave him away was the same expression I had seen before: unflinching, unsmiling, and out of place amidst all the holiday festivities. This time he was in the next to last photo. The picture was of a huge gathering at some public park. With all the people spread out on blankets and folding chairs, I figured everyone was there to see some fireworks. I didn’t recognize the location or the other people in the shot, but there was no mistaking the man I saw peering at the group from far off in the background. Was this some stalker or something? Because there was no way this was all a coincidence, especially because the orders were all placed under different names. The weird part was that the people in these pictures were completely different from the ones I had seen before. The only similarity I could tell aside from the strange man was that in both instances he had only appeared when there was a photo of a large group of people.
The old saying “a picture says a thousand words,” is very true at times, but sometimes you wished they would say a thousand more. I had no idea what the context was for the stranger in the picture. Worse, there was nothing I could really do. All I had was the name the respective orders was placed under and that was it.
Ignoring the chill that had just washed over me, I finished the order and went on to the next. I managed to forget about what I’d seen until one night about two months later.
I was manning the customer service counter for the night and was just getting ready to go on break when I heard the telltale bell clinging that meant we had a customer. Putting my stuff down, I strode out to the front to take care of things.
“How can I help you?” I asked to the customer, whose back was turned to me.
“Hi, I have an order to pick up. I believe my wife placed it under the name Crawford,”
He turned to face me and my stomach dropped to somewhere around my knees. It was the strange man from the pictures. Same closely cropped hair and unreadable expression.
“Of course,” I managed to say while checking the cartons of packages ready for pick up. Crawford was mercifully near the top. I wasted no time in grabbing it and returning to face the guy.
“Here you are. It’ll be $7.95,”
“Here you are,” he gave me a 10 and I quickly made change.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” I asked over the deafening sound of my own heart rate.
“Oh no thank you, this is plenty. Between the two of us, I’m just happy to finally get some time off work. I’m in law enforcement so my schedule is a mess,” he added while showing me the legit badge and ID on the inside of his wallet.
“Yup. I’ve been doing undercover work for the last few months and it’s finally over. That’s why I’m thrilled to be doing something as ordinary as run errands. You should be able to read all about it in the paper tomorrow, but there was this serial killer operating around here. His victims were all people he knew personally. He would go to their houses for holidays and stuff and they never suspected a thing. I’ll give him this, he was clever. Since he never wanted to have his picture taken there, he would instead volunteer to be the one to take the big family photos of everyone. I even watched him do it a few times myself. Scary stuff huh?”
“Very,” I agreed as relief began flooding through my body. “It’s easy to forget that a photo shows everything except the person taking it.”