Thomas Sauvin is a French photography collector and editor who lives in Beijing. In 2009, he embarked on an unusual adventure: salvaging the abandoned negatives from a recycling area north of Beijing before they could be destroyed. Undertaking one of the largest and most important archival projects in China all by himself, Sauvin looked through every sack, which he purchased by the kilo, and then selected, reworked and classified more than half a million anonymous photographs. Photographic archives are rare in the Middle Kingdom. During the turbulent 20th century, most of the public and private archives were destroyed. Beijing Silvermine is exemplary, the work of a single man that will have a profound effect on our collective memory and our knowledge of the recent past.
The photographs salvaged for the Beijing Silvermine project defy categorization. They are neither artistic nor documentary. They were originally private but have become public. And they represent a daily life that is now historical. The number of ways the photographs can be read and interpreted is impressive. Some of the images are intact while others are damaged, some are in mint condition or covered in stains, and the framing is alternatively careless and remarkably composed. Thomas Sauvin has a penchant for the incongruous and trivial. We do not know who these people are. Perhaps we know a few of the places, but the blurred images leave room for the imagination, and we surprise ourselves with the narratives we invent. By saving this recent and nearly-forgotten past, Sauvin has given us the opportunity not only to pass it on, but to reinvent it and make it more alive than ever.
• Original article: CABOS, M. 2014. “Beijing Silvermine: An Archive of Contemporary China.” L’Oeil de la photographie.
• GUILLERME, E. 2012. “Beijing Silvermine – Thomas Sauvin.” Vimeo.
• SAUVIN, T. 2013. Silvermine. London: Archive of Modern Conflict.