Photographer Jan Rosseel evokes the most traumatic case in Belgian crime history


With his new exhibition, Flemish photographer Jan Rosseel challenges the notions of truth and memory, as he takes us through a 30-year investigation into the series of violent murders that shook Belgium in the 1980s

Private investigations

Anyone who lived in Belgium in the 1980s knows about the Bende van Nijvel, known in English as the Brabant Killers. In the first half of the decade, masked men killed 28 people during attacks on supermarkets, mostly in Flemish and Walloon Brabant provinces, seemingly without provocation. Despite a police dossier of more than a million pages, including evidence and testimonies, none of the culprits were ever caught.

Among the victims was Jan Rosseel’s father. Belgian Autumn: A Confabulated History is an intriguing book and exhibition by the Flemish photographer, which addresses one of the biggest traumas in local crime history.

The project criticises the investigation, which – 33 years after the first murder – is still ongoing, illustrating how surreal Belgium and its rule of law can be. It is also a testament to the banality of life.

Rosseel’s father was murdered on his way to his local supermarket, where he intended to purchase a pack of cigarettes (and a pork cutlet) just before closing time. The son, only six at the time and largely unaware of the traumatic impact of the events, would later occasionally drop the remark that cigarettes do kill.

The book and the exhibition at Antwerp’s Photo Museum (FoMu) “are the result of a long fermentation process,” says Rosseel, now 36.

During his youth, the tragedy wasn’t discussed much. But when he was studying documentary photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, a project about hidden spaces crossed his path, and he started to think about the secret spots in his own mind.

“The death of my mother was another catalyst,” he explains. “I wanted to know more about my family history.” Having a closer look at the evidence of the case was an important step.

A bad B movie

Of course, Rosseel couldn’t take official evidence home, so he built himself a tiny studio at the police station in Charleroi where some 1,500 pieces connected to the investigation were stored. He photographed the objects devoid of their context. While the reasons for his project were intimate and personal, the documentary approach allowed him to maintain a form of distance.

Since the investigation was so absurd, I thought I had to take a more rational stance

- Photographer Jan Rosseel

“I tried to avoid sentiment,” Rosseel says. “Since the investigation was so absurd, I thought I had to take a more rational stance. Even a B movie script would not contain so many stupidities, so I went looking for some structure in the puzzle.”

Back in the darkened exhibition room at FoMu, a mysterious portrait of an unknown person wearing a mask of the late French president François Mitterrand hangs on the wall (pictured above). During one of the attacks, a Nijvel gang member was wearing the same mask.

Rosseel says it’s a self-portrait based on testimonies. “For me, it is also a key image since it unravels different layers,” he explains. “There’s politics, and it also represents a certain threat. At the same time, it is referring to the anonymity of the perpetrators and to the notion of memory.”

Memory is an important issue in Rosseel’s research-based storytelling. His projects not only reconstruct historical events but also ask questions about the reliability of our memories and our brains. In psychiatry, “confabulate” means filling the gaps in one’s memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts.

“The analogy with the investigation is striking,” he says. During the investigation all kinds of theories, not in the least of the conspiracy kind, were suggested, he says, including the involvement of known criminals, right-wing movements connected to the CIA and death squads.

Murderous pilgrimage

“You can never be sure of the testimonies,” he says. “There are holes everywhere. A getaway car used by the gang even ended up at a scrap heap. Sometimes I add extra context to a certain image, but basically, it is up to the reader of the book or the visitor to the exhibition to decide whether he or she wants to take over the role of the investigator in my confabulated history of the events.”

You can never be sure of the testimonies. There are holes everywhere

- Jan Rosseel

Rosseel not only displays photos of evidence and police records, he also visited places related to the case with his camera, including supermarket car parks and a forest where the gang members used to hang out (pictured above). He compiled a list of items the victims went shopping for when they were murdered, and there is a curious photograph of the vinyl single “Te voet naar Scherpenheuvel” (Walking to Scherpenheuvel) by the Marlets.

This Flemish cover of the Neil Sedaka song “Is This The Way To Amarillo” was requested at the Aalst community radio station Mi Amigo to be played at a specific time and was dedicated to the Brabant Killers. It was half an hour before the attack on the Delhaize supermarket in Braine l’Alleud where Rosseel’s father was killed. Scherpenheuvel is a Flemish pilgrimage town.

“I did not develop this project to find closure,” Rosseel says. “It’s better to visit a shrink for that.”

Rosseel is now taking the subject of confabulation in other directions. He is about to take part in an interdisciplinary research project about memory that brings together some 50 scientists from all over the world at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam.

On a personal level, Rosseel will be looking at the violent Dutch train hostage crisis of 1977, another case with political and social dimensions. “Once again, it’s not only about people getting murdered,” he says. “There are always different perspectives.”

Until 4 October, FoMu, Waalsekaai 47, Antwerp