Since 2009 French photograph collector and editor Thomas Sauvin has made regular visits to an illegal recycling site located on the outskirts of Beijing. Having lived in China for nearly ten years, here he meets with clandestine recyclers from whom he salvages photo negatives that would otherwise be lost to filtration for their silver nitrate content.
“I was looking online for ways to collect old negatives,” Sauvin tells us. “And I kept seeing one guy's name on different blogs and forums: 'My name is Xiaoma, if you have negatives to sell you can contact me on 13717708965'. I did contact him to learn about his collection, and that's when I realised he was actually collecting them to recycle.”
Looking for scenes of everyday life, Sauvin has catalogued hundreds of thousands of snaps of holidays, celebrations with friends, new home appliances, pets – everything from theme parks, karaoke, trips to McDonald’s, ladyboys, and accidental snaps – taken over a 20-year period by people across China, from when the first mainstream Kodak camera was available in 1985, to the rise of digital photography around 2005. Sauvin has been grouping the photos into series, some of which were recently published by AMC in beautifully bound collections.
"The photos are of people buying, consuming, travelling and revelling and otherwise participating in mass consumerism and enjoying popular culture"
The photos are of China after the Cultural Revolution, when the country was opening itself economically to other markets. They are of people buying, consuming, travelling and revelling and otherwise participating in mass consumerism and enjoying popular culture. The books have been nominated for the Best Photo Book of the Year at the 6th International Fotobook Festival in Kassel.
Looking forward, Sauvin is continuing with the Silvermine project, and is also “collecting a lot of other photographic material,” he says, “to keep showing in unusual publications. To come very soon is Issue 8 of the Amc2 journal on photographic coffins, and sooner or later a book on a very hairy person.”
Beijing Silvermine / 2009-2013 by Thomas Sauvin is available from The Archive of Modern Conflict, with a film by LeiLei and intervention by Melinda Gibson, available from AMC Books.
Text by Ananda Pellerin