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The Quest To Rescue Beijing's Trashed Photo Negatives

It's a bit hyperbolic. And French-born, Beijing-based photo preservationist Thomas Sauvin is the first to say he's really not trying to rescue all the world's photos, let alone China's, let alone Beijing's. Even still, he's managed to save about half a million negatives from being recycled.

What happens to trashed negatives if Sauvin doesn't get to them first? In China, at least, they're collected, dropped in acid (along with old X-rays), and what remains — the silver nitrate — will fetch a decent price.

But these negatives are positively priceless. They're almost all family snapshots, with some advertising photography mixed in, dating from around 1985 to 2005 — the height of film point-and-shoots and a period of China's economic opening to the West. How does that translate in photographs?

According to Sauvin, it's in the appearance of Ronald McDonald, in portraits of happy new television owners, in posters of Hollywood actors, and in the very few vertical photos found among the half-million: women modeling their new refrigerators.

Sauvin's project, Beijing Silvermine, is not new to the Internet. A short documentary (worth watching if you want to learn more) made by Sauvin and his friend Emiland Guillerme was featured as a Vimeo staff pick a while back, which is how I discovered the project.

I've been corresponding with Sauvin since then, and he just sent me a batch of 6,000 freshly scanned negatives to play with. How does one edit 6,000 photos into something manageable? Ultimately, it's pretty arbitrary. I could have spent many more hours perfecting the edit, but at some point, a person's gotta sleep.

I wish I could see how you readers would edit this trove; alas, there's no public-facing archive (yet). You might be drawn to a motif. Take, for example, the recurring composition of one person standing exactly in the middle of the frame.

Or you might find sequences. A lot can happen in one roll of film.

You could mash up various family photos to create one story: a day in the life of Beijing. Or even broader: the life of a human in Beijing. Babies are born, they take their first steps, lovers have trysts and weddings and — yes, more babies. Feasts and funerals emerge between the sprockets. It's all there, perfectly anonymous yet entirely universal. And just imagine how many negatives around the world we'll never see.

On a late-night Skype chat (because he is, after all, 12 hours into the future), Sauvin explained that while the project is about the history of Beijing, there's a bigger picture here:

"It may sound a bit pretentious," he says, "but it just is what it is: It's about human being. It's about humanity."

Anonymous photographer. From the <em>Beijing Silvermine</em> collection.
/ Courtesy of Thomas Sauvin
Courtesy of Thomas Sauvin
Anonymous photographer. From the Beijing Silvermine collection.

Beijing Silvermine is one of many endeavors by the Archive of Modern Conflict to create a digital archive. Sauvin says he will continue the project for the foreseeable future, but that with the "death of analog photography in China," as he puts it, an end is in sight.

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Claire O'Neill