Empty Bottles

Publisher: Self published in association with Veenman Publishers

Text: Hans Moleman and Floris-Jan van Luyn

Design: Kummer & Herrman

Edition: 800 copies

Size: 24 × 31,5 cm

Softcover, 64 pages

May 2007

Empty Bottles shows 24 people collecting plastic bottles in Beijing and Shanghai. It was a subject we came across by accident. While setting up the camera, a woman walked into the image and picked up a bit of plastic that we used as a means of focusing in the hazy light. We planted more empty bottles in front of our view camera and waited until somebody picked it up. Sometimes the bottle was gone before we were behind the camera, other times it lasted more than an hour before someone cared to pick it up. The camera was always in plain view, and the subject of our images only a few meters away. The bottle, which almost functioned as a cable release here, decided the moment the film was exposed, and the people in front of the camera directed their own scene on our stage.

*Winner of the 2007 Prix du Livre for Best Contemporary Photobook*

Catalogue text for ‘Best Books of the Decade, June 2011

Made curious by all the news we read about China, we traveled to Beijing and Shanghai in 2006 with the intention to make a body of work; to see the place for ourselves and compare it to all that we had been reading. The time spent there resulted in the publication Empty Bottles, which shows 24 people collecting plastic bottles.


It was a subject we came across by accident. While setting up the camera, a woman walked into the image and picked up a bit of plastic that we used as a means of focusing in the hazy light. We made a contact sheet of the negative and put it up on our hotel room wall. It was only after a few weeks that we realized the significance of the gesture portrayed in this picture. The simple act of picking up a bottle, often in contrast with a booming skyline, touched on several big issues in a very subtle way (e.g. resources; mega-cities; the contrasts between rich and poor). It was this photograph that became the starting point for a larger body of work.


We set out to photograph more bottle collectors. But to address the fact that we were just two foreigners – curiously gathering information and by no means experts on the subject – we didn’t want to try to show the subject from the viewpoint of the bottle collectors, but to show it from our own point of view. We wanted our way of working to be a part of the images. This approach resulted in a way of shooting where we planted an empty bottle in front of our view camera and waited until somebody picked it up. Sometimes the bottle was gone before we were behind the camera, other times it lasted more than an hour before someone cared to pick it up. The camera was always in plain view, and the subject of our images only a few meters away.


Putting the bottles in front of the camera turned this documentary project almost into a performance piece, where people were acting out their daily routines on a pre-set stage. We felt that this way of working showed our position as outsiders, and at the same time invited some people to interact. On one occasion, a small group of people watched us while we were setting up the camera and placed the bottle in front of it. Not willing to participate, two of them walked in front of the camera and stood with their backs towards the lens, while a third person, obscured by the two others, picked up the bottle and walked away. The empty bottle, which almost functioned as a cable release here, decided the moment the film was exposed, and the people in front of the camera directed their own scene on our stage.

© 2019 Ruben Lundgren

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