(CNN) — Back in the summer of 2009, while clearing out his grandfather’s house after he had moved into a nursing home, Dave Tomkins came across a box, the contents of which would eventually take him on adventures to 17 cities in seven countries and lead Internet users on a photographic treasure hunt.
The box he found in the house in New South Wales, Australia, was filled with 50 photographic slides, showing his grandfather Stephen Clarke’s travels across Europe, the United States and Asia during the mid-1960s, journeys that Tomkins knew nothing about.
Holding the small 35mm sized images up to the light for hours, Tomkins who works as an Art Director was amazed, not only at the composition and quality of the images, but also that his grandfather had traveled extensively at all in a time when air travel to Europe from Australia was lengthy and expensive.
“As we always do when we are five, and six and 10, we go to our grandparents and try and tell them how wonderful we are, how well we’re doing at school and at soccer” says Tomkins.
“You know I spent way too much time talking about myself and never really asked grandpa about what he got up to, which feels a little silly now. So, when I saw the slides I was really interested in where the hell he went and what he got up to.”
In the nursing home, his grandpa was feeling pretty down so Tomkins thought the slides would offer something for them to talk about and cheer him up. Scanning them onto his laptop, Tomkins did a big reveal of the photos but Clarke did not share his enthusiasm.
“He wasn’t really interested. He couldn’t remember and didn’t want to talk about it that much” explains Tomkins.
In July 2013, Clarke passed away and Tomkins never did find out where exactly his beloved grandfather had traveled.
Of the 50 slides he found, there was one that he recognized as showing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the half-built Opera House.
And that got Tomkins thinking.
“I looked at that photo and I knew instantly where it was because I’m from Australia. What that kind of made me realize is if I know where that is and it’s not even built yet, someone in Italy is going to know where that bridge is, it made me realize that all I have to do is get these photos in front of as many people as I can and someone is going to know where they are.”
In 2014, Tomkins who had spent years thinking and talking about putting the photos online to track down where they were taken, quit his job and built a website showcasing them.
Within a week of the launch, 45 of the 50 locations featured had been identified, and not necessarily by those who immediately knew where the place was.
“People love the mystery” says Tomkins.
“They really enjoy being the person who can know a place or can point out a place and I think that really drives people. One guy sent me an email that had 20 Google Street View links in it. The amount of work behind that is insane.”
He also received a huge number of emails from those who simply wanted to talk about family.
“Forty percent of the emails I get are people saying ‘sorry I don’t know where any of the photos are but…’ and they want to talk about their grandpa.
“A lady from Serbia emailed me with a really heartfelt message about how she got on the website and started crying and then called her dad who she hadn’t spoken to him in 20 years.
“I think that’s what’s really cool about this, is people move on to the story of their grandparents or parents. Everyone can relate to it I think.”
On the road
Following the huge response, Tomkins decided to spend the next two months retracing his grandpa’s footsteps, standing where his grandfather stood and retaking almost all of the photos using the same camera Clarke had used in the 1960s — a Voigtlander Bessamatic.
Sometimes he would arrive in a country knowing exactly where the destination was, other times he would have to hunt around but the end result was always worth it.
“In Italy, I was staying in a hostel and I had to get a bus, a train, and another bus into the hills to Sarezzo. It was really hot and I had four cameras and a tripod and all this gear and I hiked around for hours and hours trying to find this one photo and I didn’t find it.
“I got really down, and thought I’ve made all this effort and I’m not going to find it, sorry grandpa I tried. Then I had to walk back down the hill to get the bus and I walked round the corner and there it was.
“Walking into this scene that you’ve been staring at for five years is just amazing. I imagined grandpa standing there with his Voigtlander and taking a photo and then I got to do the same thing.”
Following in his footsteps
In some places, retracing his grandfather’s footsteps was a surreal experience for Tomkins.
“The photos in Venice were really interesting because people told me exactly where they were but it’s such an intricate little maze of a place so I almost got to follow grandpa as he walked around and discovered places in that maze.
“The photos seemed really far apart before I got there but I spent all day in St Mark’s Square trying to get the light to match up and then I walked around the corner following the directions people had given me and you can see that he’s gone from St Mark’s Square around the corner, over a bridge and then he took another photo, so it was great to follow his path.
“The same thing happened in Hong Kong. I can imagine he went for a little stroll with his camera and I retraced the journey he went on which was pretty cool for me to do.”
To date, Tomkins has had more than 800 emails and in July this year, Photo 1 was identified as being taken in Espejo, Spain, leaving only one location to be found.
He has suspicions that the last remaining image was taken in Switzerland but has bittersweet feelings about it being found.
“It’s really weird now there’s only one left to find. This is such a cool thing for me because I get to talk about grandpa and learn about him and tell people about him all the time. It almost feels like he’s still out there somewhere.
“If we find that last one, it’s almost like then it’s finished, there’s nothing more to keep talking about.”
This feature was published on CNN