Beijing Silvermine is an oftentimes indescribably eclectic photographic archive of nearly 850,000 images from 1985 to 2005 that provides fascinating insights into life in China’s capital after the Cultural Revolution. Reflecting its unique genesis as negatives rescued by French artist and collector Thomas Sauvin over a decade from a silver nitrate recycling plant on the outskirts of Beijing, the collection is truly one-of-a-kind and gives viewers unprecedented access into the private and public lives of ordinary Chinese citizens navigating the transformative changes after the death of Mao Zedong.
The website is geared primarily towards art and e-commerce, with the frontpage listing products for sale under a gallery cycling through dramatic images from the collection as well as a short documentary about the archive. ‘Photobooks’ provides visitors with a list of the publications generated by Sauvin since he began cataloguing and digitising the discarded negatives. The section on exhibits and news about the project highlights the global journey of the images, highlighting the myriad shows put on in galleries and museums in places as far-flung as China, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Japan, Singapore, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria. In ‘Collaborations’, visitors are given brief introductions to various collaborative projects between Sauvin and other artists, photographers, urban planners, and researchers that build on the rich collection of photographs he has amassed. The next section on press catalogues reporting and features on either Sauvin or the Beijing Silvermine by newspapers, magazines, blogs, and external websites. For those looking to learn more about the project and its history, there is also an ‘About’ section that provides a brief overview of how the collection came about and a summary of the exhibitions the collection has featured in as well as awards and shortlists it has achieved. In addition, there is a contact form to get in touch with Sauvin and a bookshop from which one can purchase the various photobooks on offer.
Visitors’ eyes should of course be drawn to the centrepiece of the website, the ‘Gallery’ which features a small, curated selection of images drawn from the archive’s more comprehensive and frequently updated Instagram account (@beijing_silvermine). While there is only a limited selection of photographs available, they are nevertheless poignant entries into the lives of ordinary residents of Beijing. Viewing these images takes on a somewhat voyeuristic quality as they were clearly intended for private rather than public consumption, raising interesting questions about the ethics and meaning of viewing such visual records.
In terms of the classroom, there are a variety of ways that educators can use the photographic archive. One way would be to take a meta-approach to the entire archive, getting students to analyse the complex and intricate relationship of art, photography, and history inherent in the Beijing Silvermine. In addition to that, teachers can curate and select particularly evocative images and guide students into unpacking the historical context of the images and what they can tell us about life in Beijing between 1985 and 2005. Another option would be to put students’ observational skills to the test, getting them to try to piece together photographs from the same album or including the same photographic subjects.
A fascinating, confusing, and challenging photographic archive, Beijing Silvermine is on the one hand an important record of the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens living through two decades of transcendental change and on the other a somewhat problematic appropriation of their private lives. Nevertheless, it is a useful and productive resource that can spawn necessary and interesting conversations regarding the nature of photography and its uses (and abuses) as historical sources.