We all do it. We see trash on the ground, in our roads, on our beaches, and sometimes, we walk right on by. We often barely register these encounters because this problem is so pervasive, it’s everywhere. It’s like a fly on the wall, easy to ignore and difficult to face.
Yet the truth is alarming. About 8 million metric tons of plastic finds its way into our oceans each year. These numbers suggest that our oceans will contain almost 250 million metric tons of plastic by 2025, bringing along immeasurable consequences to our ecosystems, our livelihoods, and our health. The threat is real and it’s happening every day, but in order to stimulate change, we must first stop and look. We must register that the problem is here, on our sidewalks, in our yards, on our coasts; it’s everywhere, and there is something everyone can do about it.
How do you take something ugly, something we have become so numb to, and beautify it? UK-based Mandy Barker has succeeded in that and more. A collector, photographer, and activist, Barker takes ocean plastic from around the world and uses it to create something stunning, something people will pay attention to. She is continuously shocking the world one beautiful image at a time and stimulating the kind of action we need to get ourselves out of this ugly plastic mess. Read her story below.
How did you get started with your work? It all started during my childhood really. I used to collect natural objects on the beach, like driftwood and shells, so I’ve always been a collector. As the years went on, I began to notice more waste on the beach. One day, I actually saw a partially submerged car by a nature reserve, and I just realized that somehow I had to let others know what was going on because the people who don’t visit the beach don’t see these things. I then began studying photography, and I realized that was an avenue for me to let people know what was going on.
When I began researching, I was really shocked by what I was finding, and if I was shocked, then there was a good chance other people would be shocked. I started photographing waste on the beach, but people weren’t very interested in seeing the object in context on the beach. Their attention span was quite short lived—it was like, oh I’ve seen that before. I decided to come up with an idea that would draw people in and hold their attention for longer. Hopefully, when they would see the image, they may remember something more about it than just the short-lived interaction. That led me to take things away from the beach and sort of beautify them, so I could attract others to the image and shock them with what it actually is and what it represents.
What is your overall mission? Being that my work is always to let people know what is going on, I read a lot of marine journals and attend international conferences of which the normal person doesn't. I aim to somehow filter that into something visually representing and just use a caption to summarize the latest problems with ocean plastic pollution to inform others.
My work officially represents a problem that everyone should take notice of. When people can look at my work and then go away and think about their use of plastic, how much they buy, how much they use, and what they do with it at the end of the day, then my work will have achieved its aim. It’s about changing habits, really.
Do you ever have an audience in mind? I don’t have an audience at all. I think my work appeals to a wide variety of people. I do believe I would like the younger generation to lead because they are the ones who can do something about it and they're the ones who can be affected long-term.
Do you have an accomplishment you’re most proud of? I do like the Penalty Project because of the involvement from the public. When I first started asking people to send me footballs, I really didn't think that people would because when you pick them off the beach or sea, they’re sometimes soaked in water and they’re quite large. It’s a lot for someone to take it home, wrap it up, and post it and then believe I would return the postage. So when I started to receive them, I couldn’t believe that people were actually doing this from all over the world. I’ve really been amazed at the response, and it’s been a great project because of the involvement. There was even a school in Texas that collected used footballs and made a project out of it, similar to my Penalty Project, so it’s nice to get feedback from people.
Walk me through your process from an idea to a final piece. When I first visit an area, I may see certain aspects of plastic pollution specific to the place (like cigarette lighters in Hong Kong), so I start thinking about ideas, for example, maybe using just lighters. All these sort of things that I see make me want to represent the issue in the way that I do. One image I did in the Hong Kong series is called Wildlife, which shows children's popsicle wrappers aside syringes, as I found them next to each other on the beach. This really got me because such a childish product was found next to such a dangerous one.
Favorite hobby? Walking on the beaches and walking anywhere really, whether it be woodland, hills, or mountains.
For your series SHOAL, you sailed across the North Pacific Ocean’s Japanese tsunami debris field. That’s quite an adventure. Do you have any stories you’d like to share from that expedition? That was the first time I’ve stepped foot on any sort of vessel, but I didn’t really think about that. I just thought about what I would see and what I would get out of it. It was the plastic pollution issue that drove me to do it. The journey was really fantastic. I met some great people, key educators and activists in the ocean plastics movement, and I’m still in contact with them now, so that’s invaluable. It’s a great network to have, and that alone is a brilliant thing.
Tell us a bit about your most recent work. I’ve just recently completed a new project, ‘Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals’ based on the effect of microplastics being ingested by plankton, which has just been presented by East Wing Gallery and premiered at ‘Unseen’ in Amsterdam. For this project, I went back in time to the 1800s to a man called John Vaughan Thompson. He was a marine biologist who collected plankton from Ireland and identified a new species of plankton. Of course they didn't have plastic in them then. So I’ve now went back to the same places he collected the plankton and I’ve collected plastic, brought them back to the studio and kind of moved them around to make them look like plankton. It’s something different, this one, it's a play on the actual project. I try to incorporate new scientific research into my projects and highlight things most people don’t know about, so this link just made sense.
Our Parley A.I.R. Strategy (Avoid, Intercept, Redesign) approaches long-term solutions to ocean plastic through eco innovation. You implement AIR by Intercepting plastic and Redesigning it to make art. How do you Avoid plastic in your daily life? I always carry a reusable bag, the same one for over five years. It was even with me when I sailed across the Pacific Ocean. I use a metal reusable water bottle, which was given to me on the voyage across the Pacific. If I’m in a situation where I need a drink and I don’t have anything, I’ll choose a glass bottle. I don’t buy vegetables that are wrapped in packaging and I shop in stores that use crates for produce.
What are your hopes for the future of our oceans and society? My hope is that manufacturers take responsibility for the products they produce and the plastic they wrap their products in; they don’t have to package everything in plastic. If the younger generation could just be more aware of the plastic issue and what it's doing to our ecosystems, they could encourage these manufacturers to change and to rethink how they produce.