On the surface the project appears to be a documentary about the recycling of plastic bottles in China. A series of 24 photographs showing people picking up bottles from the street. The images have been described as "depicting a means of survival" in country that has only a rudimentary social service for the poor (Hans Moleman). But the project is more sophisticated than this, operating on a number of levels that take it beyond just looking at the extremes between the rich and poor.
Thijs and Ruben travelled to China eager to find out more about the new emerging country. When they arrived in Beijing they started to make photographic sketches of places and people. One day working with a 5x4 camera they placed a bottle on a wall to help focus an image when a woman walked into the frame and picked up the bottle. They took a picture. Printing up the contact sheet they pinned it to the wall of their hotel room and forgot about it.
Looking over their ideas and sketches both Thijs and Riben were intrigued by the photograph of the woman picking up the bottle. The gesture of scavenging for plastic, seemed to hold greater significance than the mere act itself. When set against the background of modern architecture and an expanding economy it could offer a subtler way of visualising the familiar contrasts between the rich and poor.
So they went back onto the streets but this time deliberately placing bottles and waiting for someone to pick them up. Using a view camera, clearly visible to the bottle collectors, WassinkLungren turned the documentary project into a performance piece, in which people acted out their daily routines on a pre-set stage. Having set the scene WassinkLundgren tacitly invited the bottle collectors into their collaboration by passing responsibility for when the picture should be taken to each protagonist by releasing the shutter at the moment the bottle was picked up. The empty bottle in effect functioned as a cable release allowing the principle character unknowingly to determine when the photograph was taken.
Each picture captures the combination of roles played out by the men and women – part scavenger, part collector and part cleaner. Set against the backdrops of Beijing and Shanghai they don't appear obviously poor and maintain a profound sense of purpose while going about their business.
Awarded the Best Contemporary Photobook of the Year" at Rencontres d'Arles in 2007 "Empty Bottles" was also selected by Martin Parr for his exhibition in PhotoIreland 2011 – in his selection of the best photo books of the decade.