Beijing Silvermine is a snapshot into life in China in the decade after the Cultural Revolution. The project is the brainchild of French photographer Thomas Sauvin. In 2009, while living in China, he bulk-bought negatives from a recycling plant in the north of Beijing and then set about archiving all 850,000 negatives.
The archive spans from 1985 until 2005, when digital cameras replaced widespread film usage. Those 20 years were a pivotal point in Chinese history, when the country officially ‘opened up’ to the West, leading to the highly globalised and engaged China that we have today.
Beijing Silvermine’s images reach places where traditional photojournalism did not. All of the negatives came from personal cameras, so we see regular Chinese people’s first encounters with capitalism and globalism through their own eyes.
For Sauvin “there’s always an element of humour to the images. It’s always somewhat anecdotal, yet representative of the time.” He started noticing trends that individually didn’t seem like much, but considering the cultural context, actually spoke to major changes happening in society.
One trend were the massively popular Marilyn Monroe posters, seen in the background of photos. This little detail represents a huge sea change in Chinese attitudes towards the West. “This is something that couldn’t have happened 10 years before. It would have been completely inconceivable to have a photo of a Westerner in your home during time of the Cultural Revolution,” says Sauvin.
The photos show the slow creep of capitalism and globalism on Chinese society. During the ’80s and early ‘90s, fridges and TVs were introduced into homes and to mark the occasion, women posed beside their brand-new prized possessions. Similarly, when McDonald’s first opened in Mainland China in 1990, people were drawn to the brand’s exoticness and “began going to get their photo taken besides Ronald McDonald, then leaving because they had no interest in eating hamburgers.”