Inside the Beijing Silvermine: A unique archive of everyday China captured through discarded photography

Together with Dropbox, we’ve curated a never-before-seen selection of images from the Beijing Silvermine, a collection of discarded negatives taken in China between 1985 and 2005.


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A young girl stands in front of the White House dressed in a red raincoat and a pink turtleneck. She looks down and away from the camera, frowning, perhaps after a long day of sightseeing. Next, a couple hold hands next to the Egyptian Pyramids – both squinting at the glaring sun. Then, a family of three sit on a couch watching TV. The mother holds her youngest child on her lap, smiling as her eldest son dozes off beside her. These are the small moments, captured by amateur photographers, that fill albums and shoeboxes in every home around the world. They are also the small moments that make up the Beijing Silvermine.

The Beijing Silvermine is an ongoing archive of found photographs, salvaged from discarded negatives taken in China between 1985 and 2005, curated by artist Thomas Sauvin. The photos depict what Thomas describes as “ordinary Chinese life,” featuring everything from accidental selfies to images of brand new televisions displayed proudly in living rooms. By bringing a selection of the photographs online for the first time, in collaboration with It’s Nice That, The Inspiration Archive marks a unique opportunity to engage with this vast resource. With Dropbox’s ease of organisation, anyone can explore the creative potential in collecting and curating their photographs.


Thomas Sauvin: Beijing Silvermine (Copyright © Beijing Silvermine, 2022)

"Picture your family albums. Chances are, you’re also smiling aggressively at the camera – maybe even standing in front of a historical landmark."

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There’s a gentle, honest quality to the images in the Beijing Silvermine. Taken using point-and-shoot cameras, they capture a fresh perspective of China’s rapid integration with the West in its infancy. The collection includes over one million images collected from negatives Thomas Sauvin acquired from a seller who otherwise recycled film to recover silver nitrate. “The film is treated like trash there,” he says, describing the recycling zone he visits to purchase the film before lugging the negatives back to his studio for processing.

For Thomas, the inspiration in his practice comes from quantity not quality – working with a mass of material that becomes something new in its totality. The archive represents over a decades-worth of work, spent collating the photographs of unknown people, and lovingly restoring them. By making a selection of images available together for the first time using Dropbox, Thomas and It’s Nice That have explored how organising such a collection can become a creative opportunity in itself.

Thomas’ interest in found photography began during his time working as a curator for the Archive of Modern Conflict. In this role, he was dealing exclusively with singular images – his day-to-day prior to the Beijing Silvermine was wholly dedicated to sourcing and acquiring pieces for exhibitions. Throughout that process, Thomas describes a change in his relationship with the images: “It became more complicated. When I saw a photograph, my first thought wasn’t just the work on its face value. I had to think about acquisition and finding the right people to talk to about the work.”

This pushed him to explore new ways to interact with photography. “Flea markets were a good place to do that,” he says, emphasising the unassuming character of the found photography sold there. Referencing photographer Martin Parr and artist-curator Erik Kessels as inspirations, Thomas describes developing a fascination with the practice of “building [something] out of anonymous photography". Gradually, he transitioned from spending weeks acquiring a single image in his previous role, to an entirely different approach. He began to build the Beijing Silvermine collection, purchasing negatives for roughly four U.S. dollars per pound from the silver nitrate recycling zone.

“At some point [the images] feel like the eye of the same photographer.”

Thomas Sauvin

Thomas Sauvin: Beijing Silvermine (Copyright © Beijing Silvermine, 2022)


Thomas Sauvin: Beijing Silvermine (Copyright © Beijing Silvermine, 2022)


Thomas Sauvin: Beijing Silvermine (Copyright © Beijing Silvermine, 2022)

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Much of Thomas’ process is based around organisation and the power of a creative workflow. As Thomas sifts through hundreds of thousands of images, he marks them with a colour. Deliberately straying away from labelling each image, he trusts his instinctual response to each visual to categorise the work. He is wary of letting subconscious prejudices hinder the organic connections formed between images, and keen to protect his spontaneous approach to curation. Rather than being led by the photographer’s identity or the location of the shoot, categories are formed around recurring details or playful observations, as you’ll see when digging through the archive yourself. “At some point I became obsessed with watermelons,” he laughs.

By emphasising the natural emergence of these connections, the images are given space to speak for themselves. In doing so Thomas removes himself from the narrative of the Beijing Silvermine.

Thomas is careful when describing this project as a curation of Chinese history: “in the sense they’re not historically correct, because they only focus on the good side of life.” While he has described this project as a “portrait of place and time,” Thomas is also quick to clarify the very specific side of Chinese history these images depict. He articulates a tension between the candidness of the image and its historical authenticity, further recognising the influence of his Parisian heritage in this project: “I was distant enough as a foreigner to be curious while having enough proximity to understand the places and moments these photos depict.”


Thomas Sauvin: Beijing Silvermine (Copyright © Beijing Silvermine, 2022)


Thomas Sauvin: Beijing Silvermine (Copyright © Beijing Silvermine, 2022)

Photography was a means of celebration in 80s and 90s China — a period in recent history when point-and-shoot cameras first became widely available. This is obvious enough just looking at the photographs. Put simply, subjects of photographs in the Beijing Silvermine know they’re having their photo taken. Think big smiles and eye contact, while bodies are positioned front on, facing the lens. Subjects hold a performative character that acknowledges the presence of the camera, posing in a manner that reflects what we understand photographs like these should look like. Picture your family albums. Chances are, you’re also smiling aggressively at the camera – maybe even standing in front of a historical landmark.

Perhaps this explains why there’s something universal at play in these photographs. The family album is a language we all recognise. The Beijing Silvermine images are historically significant not because of the informational value each photograph brings, but rather the familiarity that they evoke when exhibited together. Be it the classic birthday cake photo or the same vacation contrapposto stance with one hand resting on a monument, the structure of each image presents itself as a small piece of a shared consciousness. They find weight in quantity rather than quality.

“You switch from personal memory to collective memory. I’m really fascinated by this dynamic.”

Thomas Sauvin

Taken by thousands of different people, the Silvermine images ultimately collapse into the same perspective. When displayed in bulk, the intimate moments transform into different views of the same experience: the birthday pictures are no longer mere celebrations of individual birthdays but, instead, become a collective visualisation of birthday experiences in China during this period.. “At some point [the images] feel like the eye of the same photographer,” as Thomas describes.

“You switch from personal memory to collective memory. I’m really fascinated by this dynamic,” he continues. Despite being such intimate and personal glimpses into the lives of others, the Beijing Silvermine maintains a distance between the viewer and the subject through each subject’s anonymity. This redirects the viewer’s attention from the personal history of the subject to the broader event that the image communicates. “What you’re seeing are not personal family photos anymore. That’s not the focus, you’re not wondering about the identity of the person… you’re looking at something else.”

Through sheer quantity, found photography takes on a life of its own. Rather than entering a curatorial process with intention, the selection and arrangement of the Beijing Silvermine images occurs spontaneously – reflected in our curation of the archive on Dropbox. Be it an identical pose or the same landmark, the images share an indescribable connection. “Something happens when there’s a lot of them, when they’re next to each other,” Thomas says.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings and misinformed obsessions that people in the West have [regarding] their understanding of the lives of Chinese people.”

Thomas Sauvin

With a substantial following on various social media sites, Thomas can also recall a number of times where his followers have identified their relatives in the photos posted. He specifically details an image of a man lying in a mermaid pose horizontally on a rock. Being an image he particularly liked, Thomas used it as the centrepiece of many of his international exhibitions. The subject’s relative saw him on Thomas’ Weibo, reached out, and the two ended up having dinner together, during which he was able to discover the context of the photo: “It was of his visit to some sort of engineer conference in the countryside,” Thomas adds. “I travelled with him, so I kind of know him somehow.”

While fondly recalling his interactions with this man, Thomas underlines the importance of anonymity in the project and characterises each image as a piece of a larger puzzle. He cautions: “I’d go so far as to say that the subject’s experience of recognising themselves in the image brings nothing to the experience of the collection as a whole.” The line between collective and individual memory is drawn by the viewer’s relationship with the subject. When the subject is anonymous to us, we see the image for the moment it captures; when we’re conscious of the subject’s identity, we focus on their relationship to the moment.

In doing so, the Beijing Silvermine images find quality in quantity. As fragments of a larger, more universal whole, they offer inspiration from somewhere unexpected, unassuming, and joyful.

We invited artist Melissa Kitty Jarram to create a new piece inspired by the Beijing Silvermine. Take a look here, and while you’re there respond with some inspiration of your own to be in with the chance to receive Melissa’s original artwork.

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About the Author

Tiffany Ng

Tiffany is a recent graduate of Yale University double majoring in Ethics, Politics & Economics (EP&E) and Art History. As a multimedia journalist, her writing has been published in Vogue Hong Kong, i-D Vice, South China Morning Post, and Highsnobiety.

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