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April 26, 2024

Unique Photographs Capture Everyday Life in China During the Decades Following the Cultural Revolution

In 2009, Thomas Sauvin stumbled upon discarded film negatives he could purchase by the kilogram. The French national was alerted to them by a man in Beijing, who was collecting trash that could be melted down to extract silver nitrate — a substance that could be sold onto chemists and laboratories.

“He developed a network of people who collected negative films, X-rays, CDs, and anything else that contained silver nitrate,” Sauvin told the ABC. “Once he gathered everything, he put them in a pool of acid, and waited for silver nitrate to emerge — it looked just like gunpowder.”

At the time, Sauvin didn’t anticipate his initial discovery was going to launch a photography project with more than 800,000 images — he simply wanted to save the negatives from destruction. “So I made a deal with him to buy the negatives by the kilo,” Sauvin said. “I bought my first bag in May 2009.”

And in the process, Sauvin has incidentally archived one of the world’s biggest shifts — the rise of modern China and the country’s first forays into capitalist consumer culture. His collecting of ‘found’ Chinese photography has turned into the Beijing Silvermine.

Found, or vernacular photography refers to photographs captured by everyday people that were shot with no explicit artistic or commercial intent. And it’s these found photos that have led Sauvin to launch photobooks, exhibitions, and a popular Instagram account.

Sauvin, who has lived in China on and off since his school exchange in 1999, told the ABC that it was by chance that the Silvermine documented this period. “They were shot mostly between 1985 to 2005, because 1985 is when analogue photography started being accessible to everyday people in China, and 2005 is when digital photography started taking over,” Sauvin said.

What’s resulted is an archive packed full of candid portraits of people interacting with China’s newly reformed economy.

(Photos © Thomas Sauvin, via ABC)


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