Meet the woman turning the oceans’ trash into photographic gold

The beauty of Mandy Barker’s images sharply exposes the ugliness of the damage that plastic is doing to marine life, writes Ellie O’Byrne

Images from the exhibition by Mandy Barker.

PHOTOGRAPHER Mandy Barker is visually tell the devastating tale of the plastics that are destroying our oceans.

When the naturalist, Charles Darwin, set off on his second voyage of discovery on board the HMS Beagle, he had amongst his possessions a book called Zoological Researches and illustrations, by John Vaughan Thompson.

It was an era of prolific discovery and meticulous taxonomy, and Vaughan Thompson, a naturalist and physician, had been documenting what he termed “imperfectly known animals”, or plankton, whilst on an army posting in Cork Harbour in the 1820s.

Less than 200 years later, plankton are now ingesting the microplastics that pollute our oceans. With eight million tonnes of plastic entering our marine ecosystem annually, what’s visible is disturbing, but what happens when plastic breaks down into tiny particles is truly frightening: microscopic creatures hoover up microplastics along with the algae that make up their diet, passing a deadly toxic burden up the food chain towards humans.

Barker is just back from a voyage of grim discovery of her own; aboard the Greenpeace ship, Beluga 2, she has been documenting the extent of marine plastic pollution on remote stretches of Scottish coastline.

“Predominantly, what we found was Coca Cola and Fanta bottles, an unbelievable amount of household packaging, and then the usual assortment of fishing-related waste and household objects,” Barker says.

“It’s the single-use bottles and containers that are just unbelievable. This is in very remote places. There’s no escape; it’s everywhere.”

The Leeds-born has spent the past seven years creating work on the theme of marine plastics. Rather than simply documenting the waste she finds all over the globe, she believes art holds the key to awareness and change; her photographs’ beauty has a terribly ugly core.

Her photographs have been published in TIME, VICE, National Geographic and elsewhere. She scavenges shorelines for marine plastics, but rather than photographing them in situ, she returns them to her studio, and then uses photoshop to arrange them into multi-layered, aesthetically pleasing composite images.

“A lot of science doesn’t come with particularly powerful visual imagery,” she says. “I think, if the images weren’t powerful or visually attractive, initially, they wouldn’t have the same impact.

“The viewer wants to look, and it’s only when they read the hard-hitting facts behind them that they get the stab in the back of what’s actually happening.”

‘Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals’ is her current exhibition, in the Sirius Centre in Cobh, Co Cork.

In it, she takes the work of Vaughan Thomas and perverts it, putting the plastics themselves under the microscope and displaying them as though they were specimens of marine life. So, Ophelia Medustica is a pram wheel, and Plividas Chloticus is the discarded arm of a Barbie doll.

The collection is the result of her month-long residency at the Sirius Centre.

“Initially, I started walking the shoreline of Cork harbour,” she says.

“I went to all the areas around Fota Island and Glounthaune and beyond; I walked for miles.”

Barker’s research into Vaughan Thomas’s time in Cobh also gave her an anchoring narrative.

“The fact that he’d collected plankton in Cobh, and made these diaries and memoirs, links back to the historical period when plankton were free from plastic,” Barker says.

“That time lag between what was happening then and what’s happening now was very interesting.”

To highlight what’s happening now, and just how urgent the need to stop producing single-use plastic is becoming, Barker has travelled all over the world, including to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vortex of plastic waste which, at the most conservative estimate, is twice the size of the state of Texas.

“Everywhere I go, I come back with these vast sacks of debris, which, on a personal level, is quite overwhelming,” she says.

“My heart sinks when I get onto a beach. There’s always a syringe, there’s always a toothbrush, there’s always a disposable lighter. It’s quite depressing; what keeps me going is that I get a lot of comments and emails from people who say my work has made them think about their buying habits.

“Then, I feel like I am doing something useful, and that helps me to carry on.”

  • ‘Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals’ is at The Sirius Centre, Cobh, until July 2


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