How a Long-lost Holiday Photo Became a Symbol of a New China
By Patrick Rogers
China Lost and Found is part of HP's original documentary project, History of Memory, which celebrates the power of printed photos.
French photo editor and collector Thomas Sauvin’s treasure hunt took him down a dusty lane, through a low gateway and into a grimy recycling plant on the industrial outskirts of Beijing. Then living in China, he was searching for photographs taken by ordinary Chinese citizens when a tip from a chemical recycler led him storeroom filled with piles of discarded negatives of 35mm film. “I started looking at them and they were negatives of photographs taken by everyday people, in huge quantities,” Sauvin says in China Lost and Found, a new short film by directors Sarah Klein and Tom Mason. The film is the latest in HP’s History of Memory series about the ways printed images have the power to shape the stories of our lives.
Back at his studio, Sauvin realized the richness of the discovery. “At first the photos seemed quite common and banal, but the more negatives I looked at, they started to tell a story of China very different from every other picture taken by journalists and published in books,” he says. The scratched and faded negatives revealed pictures of families making funny faces at amusement parks, smiling women posing next to shiny new refrigerators and guests drinking and dancing at wedding celebrations. Mostly taken in the 1980s and 1990s during a time of explosive growth and massive social disruption, the images focused on intimate, carefree, everyday moments of joy and delight for Chinese families.
One of Sauvin’s favorites depicted a nameless man reclining on a rock in the middle of a picturesque lake, like a goofy middle-aged merman with a playful smile. “It was perfect. It had this element of humor, which I always try to convey to show how life was becoming freer and a bit happier in China after the hard years of the Cultural Revolution,” says Sauvin. He called his collection of pictures Beijing Silvermine, after the silver nitrate that recyclers extract from old negatives.
Beginning in 2011, Sauvin displayed selections of the photos in a series of hit exhibitions in China, the U.S. and Europe, winning prizes and acclaim for presenting a view of China that was fresh and surprising. That was true even for viewers who were born and raised there: “It was actually really illuminating to the people who saw it in China,” says Klein, the film’s co-director. “Not because they were surprised by the individual images, but by the impact a collection of images could have in explaining a specific time in the culture.”
There was, however, something missing in Sauvin’s story of recovered collective memory. In all the years that he toured the world and shared his photos on the Chinese social media site Weibo, he never had contact with any of the countless people in the Beijing Silvermine pictures. “I was surprised. It just never happened,” he says — until recently.
Co-director Mason says the filmmakers were already attracted to the beautiful photos and the intriguing story of their discovery, but wanted to know if there was a personal dimension to Sauvin’s story. “Funny you should ask,” he told them. “One person just reached out on Facebook.”
DISCOVER: More stories of people whose lives were changed by printed photographs. Visit the History of Memory project.
As fate would have it, that person was the man perched on the stone in a lake — one of the highlights of the Beijing Silvermine collection. His name was Xu Zhen, a retired engineer living in Beijing. He had only learned that the decades-old photo was part of Sauvin’s international exhibitions when the ex-boyfriend of his daughter saw the picture online and recognized its subject as a much-younger Xu.
When after many long phone conversations, Sauvin finally met Xu and his wife at a restaurant in the Chinese capital in December of 2016, it felt something like a reunion, Sauvin recalls. Xu talked about his love of photography — he arrived with six photo albums — and his talent for cooking, dancing, playing pool and karaoke. It was destiny that the two would finally meet, Xu said.
“I recognized him immediately. I knew this man, I had been traveling with him all over the world,” Sauvin says. “He was like a grandpa, telling me all about his life and so happy that we got to spend some time together at last.”