“In the beginning, I thought it would be a one-time thing. He sold me a huge bag. But every one or two months he was calling me again and for four years I kept collecting all of them. Now the archive is more than half a million negatives. So that’s how it all started.”
By Christin Aucunas, ASX, March 2013
Thomas Sauvin says he is not an artist. He is a editor, curator, collector and archivist. Since 2005, he has rescued over half a million photographic negatives that were on their way to being destroyed. Through the whole of his archive he has created an unedited portrait of a transforming post socialist China.
Christin Aucunas: Tell me a bit about the project?
Thomas Sauvin: I became interested in collecting negatives because they are the intermediary between the camera and the actual print. Quite naturally I went online and started typing down keywords that would possibly lead me to potential sellers. I visited a few blogs, forums and there was this guy named Xiao Ma always appearing saying, “My name is Xiao Ma. This is my phone number. If you have negatives to sell contact me.” So, I was a bit disappointed to realize I wasn’t the first person to have this genius idea, but at least I decided to contact the guy to see, to learn about his collection and that’s when I understood that this man was actually working in the recycling zone and specialized in recycling trashes that contained silver nitrate. So what he does basically, he has a network of people all around down that go to trash [dumps] or where ever they can to find silver nitrate rubbish. It is mostly ex-rays from hospitals, CDs- the shiny layer on the CD is actually made of silver and then also negatives. Then he has this huge brick house with a pool of acid in the middle and he puts everything in this pool and waits for a week and the silver nitrate goes down and he collects this thing that looks a bit like gun powder and sells it to chemists. So as a photographic collector when I saw this, it kind of broke my heart and had the idea that he could sell the negatives to me by the kilo. In the beginning, I thought it would be a one-time thing. He sold me a huge bag. But every one or two months he was calling me again and for four years I kept collecting all of them. Now the archive is more than half a million negatives. So that’s how it all started.
CA: Collaboration is very important to you. In what other forms is this project going to take shape?
TS: Basically, I don’t see my self as an artist, but I see myself as a photographic collector. So, what I do is I find images that would have been lost and I show them. In a sense, I don’t change or modify the pictures. I just show them as they are and then what is important for me is the stories that emerge organically from the archive and what they say about people. The archive does not only say something about the Chinese people, but many of the themes are universal. The negatives talk about birth. They talk about death. They talk about love. They talk about work and leisure. So that is why everyone can identify themselves in these pictures. However, there also are very specific stories and themes to China and to the history of the country at the time. For example, you can see pictures of women posing with their refrigerators in the late 80s when the households started modernizing. There are people posing with their TV’s. When the Chinese were going to Thailand in the early 90s, there are photos taken with the transvestites at The Tiffany’s Show Pattaya. Chinese tourists are in the Louvre and having their photo taken in front of Old Master paintings with flash. There is the apparition of McDonald’s in China and the way Ronald is present in these images. So what I do is I have a huge amount of pictures and I am not looking for something, I am just looking at the pictures again and again. Some very expected and very unexpected themes emerge. For example, the women with the fridges are a very good example of something I can’t control. Before seeing this images, you can’t actually think about such stories. It is really about looking. Then it is the work of the editor.
This archive is so big that it really needs to be digested through other people’s outlook. So a year and a half ago, I started a collaboration with a Chinese animation artist LeiLei, who offered to make an animation film using 6,000 photos from the archive. So, as you can see here, the idea was to explore a couple of theories that have a common visual denominator like the portraits in Tiananmen square or it could be the shape of a round table. It could be the sunset. At the rate of 8 pictures per second he created this sort of stroboscopic look into the archive. So that was a very laborious and intense collaboration and the result is very interesting and very true to the archive because the only thing it can show are themes that repeat in these huge quantities. You cannot come with a strange idea and explore a very narrow story. You can only use and show what exists in huge quantities like the people in Tiananmen Square, people posing in front of a a gravestone at a tourist landmark in China. That was a very interesting collaboration.
“In many ways, the way Chinese look at the negatives, they find it very boring, very banal. They say, ‘whoa, you like these pictures? We have these at home.’ That is a good thing to me. They are absolutely not special to them.”
I also collaborated with an urban planner specializing in the city of Beijing – a French man called Jeremie Descamps – and he used images from the archive to make studies on how Beijing changed in the last 20 years. A very simple diptych format where you can see the places 20 years ago and what they are now. Some place don’t change at all. Some places change a lot through the outlook of someone who really knows the city and the way the city works. That was an interesting view as well.
The most recent collaboration was with Melinda Gibson, who came as an artist in residence, last week in Beijing being her last. Her latest works are on show [at Format]. She spent the last week looking at 250,000 images and she decided to focus on the fully distressed negatives – the one’s where you can’t see anything or recognize anything anymore. It is an aesthetic study on how these very banal images can transform into very beautiful objects. So this might then lead to silk screens. It is in progress. She will work on it back at home for 6 months and then probably come back to Beijing this summer so she can keep working on it.
CA: Do you then see the archive as a starting point?
TS: Very much. It is a starting point. In many ways, the way Chinese look at the negatives, they find it very boring, very banal. They say, “whoa, you like these pictures? We have these at home.” That is a good thing to me. They are absolutely not special to them. But after looking at 20 or 50 photographs they always see something that works as a trigger for their memory. It could be a drink they used to drink at the time or it could be something else. These pictures are important because they serve as a trigger for something new and to create. It is a very organic process. Seeing things coming to life because of these rubbish negatives makes a lot of sense underneath. Is is so important to share these. It is unhealthy for me to be the only one to go though these images to digest them through my own emotions and taste.
CA: The editor has always played a critical role in photography. Is some ways the role is becoming more crucial. What are your feelings?
TS: It is a complicated topic. These are only words or labels. I could probably claim to be an artist, but I would say simply that I edit artistically. But, just because I do something artistically does not make me an artist. An artist creates. They use something to create something new. They transform things as a representation of their own spirit. This is not something I do. But the role of editor is surely crucial to deal with images. Especially now days with photos everywhere.
CA: Do these images tell you something about how you engaged with photography?
TS: I think there is something simple at play. Even if they are taken by 1000s of different people, they really sometimes respond to the same recipe in the sense that there is always a paradox about it. On one hand there is a complete lack of spontaneity to photography in China. You can almost hear the “1,2,3 click.” On the other hand you have the complicity between the photographer and the photographed. That is a very important recipe. It creates very unpretentious, very funny and undoubtedly endearing images. All these together are a combination that are very hard to find in photography. This is why I connect so strongly to these images.
CA: Has anyone recognized themselves?
TS: Yes. Once I spent 6 hours looking at images from the archive with my Chinese friend and he actually recognized a picture of one of his neighbors that was taken in the residence where he grew up. When he went home that night, he took a picture of the residence. That was the starting point for the idea to collaborate with the urbanist and the diptych film. But so far, not many people have recognized themselves. Actually, there was an article in the Guardian in January. Right after that a Chinese guy translated it and took the images and put it on Sina Weibo [The Chinese version of Twitter.] It started being retweeted. Not that many times, like 400 times, which in China is not that many. 50 comments. No one recognized themselves, but the images worked like a trigger for another type of recognition. Like someone commented “Wow, I had that Fridge for 14 years in my house. It is a very good fridge. My new one only lasted 2 years”
CA: The way you talk about the trigger reminds me of Roland Barthe’s punctum in Camera Lucida. Even just walking around the exhibition- especially the McDonald’s. They are such an icon of America. I know I have an image of myself next to Ronald.
TS: If you place these into the historical context of China, these were taken in the early 90s and 1976 was the end of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, the ideology was so different. 15 years later, you now actually see the Chinese having their pictures taken next to an American icon. It says a lot about the society and the way things changed. And when you talk about economics, these images were taken between 1985 when the average Chinese citizen started having access to photography, and 2005 when digital photography started taking over. These 20 years span the economy opening up and to the west. How do you translate that into pictures? Probably with pictures of McDonalds and with images of people in front of their posters of western actors – the winner was Marilyn Monroe, but also James Dean as well as Sylvester Stallone. People describe these changes in China, but it hard to have images to show it. So, it makes the archive, historically speaking, quiet a valuable collection I suppose.
“I think that phenomena (found photograph re-use) is something that is going to shape contemporary photography in the coming decades, but one should be very cautious. Some do deal with it in very interesting ways.”
CA: What has been the response in China when you exhibited this work?
TS: My first exhibition was in South China and people acted quite positively, but it was really a photography specialist crowd. I am more interested in the reaction of my friends or people I accidentally meet in the street that ask me what I do. I show them the images. As I was telling you, they typically find it very boring because they have the exact same images at home, but then they look further at the pictures they work as a trigger to their memory. I think it is too recent of a past and people are really looking to the future. For these two reasons, people are not really responding or going crazy over these pictures. It will take time for it to make sense in China, maybe 10, 20, 30 years. I’m young, so I will wait.
CA: What do you think the project says about contemporary China?
TS: It is really a portrait of post-socialist china, the cultural revolution barely over. I couldn’t say it was an easy time. It was a tough time in China, but I found what I didn’t really expect, a lot of happiness, a lot of smiles. People having fun, drinking, loving each other, playing with each other. I mean what better way to have a portrait of a society at that time. Individually, all of the images are subjective I suppose, because they are intimate stories, but when when you bring them all together collectively, it becomes more of an objective portrait of a society. But of course, one should keep in mind, that you only take pictures during good times. So naturally, this does not mean that those years were not tough for people.
CA: I think the archive speaks to something about analog photography – that it is precious. This project would have been completely different if done digitally.
TS: Sure, It would be completely different. I guess, as a photography collector and editor, when dealing with vernacular photography, you should try your best to discover things that haven’t been shown. There is a newer trend with photobooks and series using works of found photos online. Some of them are very interesting, very funny, I like them, but something annoys me in that it is showing something that everyone has access to. In that sense, it doesn’t bring something new. I always like when collectors that deal with photography try to discover new things and show new material. That is part of the game.
CA: That is something I am focusing my research on. I’m looking at the connection between digital images and how they are repackaged as photobooks.
TS: That will be good research. I think that phenomena is something that is going to shape contemporary photography in the coming decades, but one should be very cautious. Some do deal with it in very interesting ways. One such project is by an artist named Laia Abril, who made the series Thinspiration, a photobook of self portraits taken by anorexic women. It is a very good one, a very powerful project.
This is interesting, because in her approach she basically digs out things. I feel a little bit less comfortable when I see something about Kim Jung Il looking at things (Kim Jong Il Looking at Things by João Rocha and Marco Bohr). It is obviously a very good commercial book and they have sold maybe 3,500 copies and are printing another 1,500 more, but I think it lacks a little bit. It is a bit opportunistic. It doesn’t bring any new cultural understanding. One should be careful when doing this. I am not saying it is all like that. There are many found photo projects that I do like.
[In relation to analog] It is nice to connect to a physical object. The negative is a very romantic object. This piece of material that is touched by sun and shadows and then stays on the shelf for a few years. They start to decay and then for some reason that I never really know, they end up in the garbage. Then they end up in the recycling bin. I find them, keep them and have them scanned and brought to life again. It is nice to have a physical link to all these steps. This piece of material actually was three meters away from the subjects of the photograph at that time.
CA: How do you think the images change once they become digitized? Do they change for you at all?
TS: They do change in so many ways. I mean, they go from negatives to positives, but I don’t change them much. I don’t clean them. If they come with scratches, dust, hairs, I don’t change that. It is very interesting that Melinda [Gibson] started focusing on the completely distressed images. I actually identified a few that were found in 2009 at the very beginning of the project. I tried and found them again because everything is archived and I can find the original negative. We found the negative again and had it scanned again and the chemistry was still working. So depending on the colors that are in film, some negatives change and some don’t. If you see the two files together, they are definitely different. So if you think about this, they are not conserved in a very nice place. It is super humid and a very shitty room, but this is actually nice. If they transform, they transform.
CA: With digital, it is said, that this is the death of the archive. Once things are on the internet there is no past. It all happens simultaneously. Once these images are on the web, does it change the way you think of them or how the project functions?
TS: I suppose that having the images in a book or a catalogue or in a library or available online, as soon as they are out of my hands, they live again. So, it does not make a difference if it is online or not. It is always very satisfying to see these images revived.
CA: In one of your interviews you mentioned that you’ve been able to put a date to these images that is within a few years and this develops things into a linear chronology.
TS: It is possible to do that and put a rough time within three or four years. Because they always come in a plastic sheet. It is always 36 photographs on one. It is very different than project where you are dealing with photographic prints from a photo album. That is very, very crucial and what makes the archive very interesting, I think. It is not people’s edits. It is the raw material. We have everything. There is something I never know, but not one day goes by without me thinking about. I would love to know, how many exist or existed in a photo album. I guess, with the birth and youth pictures, it is quite likely, but all the rest? I actually do collect a lot of photo albums. I have hundreds of them. It is the same source, but the edit is the worst thing. Family and love is the worst thing that can happen to negative film. People always select the pictures for the wrong reasons or they select good pictures for good reasons, but they are their own personal ones. It is good to be completely disconnected to these people. I don’t care if it’s an ugly one or a blurred on. It is just a story on it’s own.
CA: What’s next?
TS: More collaboration. In the next few months I will really be focused on the collaboration with Melinda Gibson and she is going to bring something totally new to this archive. I am very excited and looking forward to this. Also, there are more exhibitions in the future. Hopefully, every time there is an exhibition, a new collaboration will form. I don’t want a frozen version of the collection. I don’t want to show the collection and keep repeating the same thing. Hopefully it will bring new outlooks. All of this being said, factually speaking, the next exhibition will be in Hong Kong – June 14th at the Salt Yard. That is a nice name for an exhibition.
(All rights reserved. Text @ ASX and Christin Acunas, Images @ Thomas Sauvin and courtesy Format International Photography Festival)