French photographer Thomas Sauvin salvages fascinating images of Beijing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 4:24am

A selection from half a million discarded old photos of Beijing rescued by a French photo collector will go on show in Hong Kong on Saturday.

The Beijing Silvermine collection of Thomas Sauvin, a photographer living in Beijing, consists entirely of candid shots by residents over the past two decades. The negatives were thrown out as garbage by locals as digital cameras replaced traditional ones.

The photographer found hundreds of thousands of fascinating images that offer a glimpse of the fast-changing face of the city and local people's lives.

Sauvin, 30, spent the past four years visiting a recycling centre a where he salvaged tonnes of discarded negatives. They were originally collected by a recycling trader who melted them down in a pool of acid to extract valuable silver. After a week, the trader dries up the pool and collects the silver at the bottom.

"When I saw him dump the 35mm negatives into the pool, it really hurt me," Sauvin recalls. "I told him I would buy the negatives from him by the kilo." Back at his studio, Sauvin had the negatives scanned. "All these stories that emerge are something I could not even dream of. I didn't expect to find women posing with fridge and TV."

There are snaps of people at home with posters of Marilyn Monroe and other iconic Western figures, and even a cat in outfits with the logo of McDonald's when the fast-food chain arrived in China in the early 1990s. The photos cover 20 years from 1985 to 2005, when digital photography became popular. "They were memories of ordinary people during the 20 years of China's economic opening," Sauvin says.

Beijing Silvermine will be on show from Saturday until August 11 at The Salt Yard in Kowloon.