Behind Mandy Barker’s incredible imagery is a lesson for us all. She speaks to Amy Davies about her fascinating projects

Take a quick glance at Mandy Barker’s stunning work and you’ll see a thing of beauty. But the truth behind these incredible shots is a sad testament to humanity’s impact on the planet and its oceans.

Mandy has been working with marine plastic debris for the past decade, for which she has received global recognition, been published and exhibited dozens of times, and been awarded many major plaudits. She has joined several environmental research expeditions across the globe, contributing important information to archives that are accessible to explorers and scholars.

33.15N, 151.15E from the series SHOAL. Items were collected during the Japanese Tsunami Debris Expedition in June 2012, which sailed across the tsunami debris field in the North Pacific Ocean. Items here include fishing related plastics, nylon rope, buckets, shampoo bottles and balloons. Photo: Mandy Barker

Among other recognitions, she’s been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet prize, nominated for the Magnum Foundation Fund and the Deutsche Börse Foundation Photography Prize. She received the 2018 National Geographic Society Grant for Research and Exploration and in 2012 was awarded the Royal Photographic Society’s Environmental Bursary.

Personally, I was fortunate to see Mandy’s incredible photographs while they were on display at the Royal Photographic Society’s headquarters in Bristol last year – seeing them blown up large scale is even more impressive.

From a distance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these are paintings, perhaps showing something beautiful from nature. But look closer, and you’ll see what the details actually are. Discarded footballs, children’s toys, balloons, and other throwaway objects make up these wonderful compositions. It’s just a tiny fraction of what we offload into the ocean, and it’s a stark reminder of how we can all be more responsible with our waste.

I caught up with Mandy – who has been using lockdown’s enforced time at home to work on her latest project – to find out more about what drives her, how she puts together her pieces and what she hopes for the future.

Her latest series – LUNASEA, will be available to view at her website, mandy-barker.com, as from 8 June.

Above: 30 Years,or INDEFINITE? An image which shows PVC gloves. Corals are destroyed when discarded fishing equipment, such as overalls, gloves, damaged lobster pots and nets drag along the ocean floor. Photo: Mandy Barker

AP: What is your photographic background?
MB: I have always had a keen interest in photography since I was around 13 years old, and although I have had a career as a graphic designer, photography was always evident in my design work. It hasn’t been until later in life that I found time to study photography part-time at Harrogate College followed by an MA at De Montfort University in Leicester. Both courses were exactly what I was looking for and I was extremely lucky to have been inspired by some incredible tutors on both courses – the result of which was my first project, INDEFINITE, in 2010.

AP: What first drew you towards documenting plastic pollution?
MB: During my childhood, I had always enjoyed being by the sea and collecting natural objects such as driftwood and shells. Increasingly, over the years, these natural objects have been taken over by man-made waste, especially plastic. On one occasion when I returned to visit my local beach I saw household appliances such as fridge freezers, computers, and TVs washed up, and began to wonder how they got there. I felt this was an environmental concern that others should know about, and this is what stimulated my work – to spread awareness of this experience to a wider audience.

The World, from the series PENALTY. Seven hundred and sixty nine marine-debris footballs (and pieces of) collected from 41 countries and islands around the world, from 144 different beaches, and by 89 members of the public, in just four months. Photo: Mandy Barker

AP: Tell us more about how you work with scientists for your projects.
MB: My work has to be accurate if it is to be believed. It is essential to the integrity of my work that I don’t distort information for the sake of making an interesting image and that I return the trust shown to me by the scientists who have supported my work. Although aesthetics are important, it has more to do with representing the facts of how we are affecting our planet and changing environments.

AP: How do you get involved with the various scientific explorations and expeditions that you have joined?
MB: Through initially attending International Marine Debris Conferences and events, I have built up a network of contacts around the world and I have been invited by these scientists and organisations to join expeditions to represent their research.

AP: What do you look for in a project, and how do you choose which particular expeditions to be involved with?
MB: My projects are based on the latest plastic research that I think is most relevant, the things I think people ought to know about, but perhaps don’t have access to finding out about. The expeditions I choose to take part in are the ones that I think will generate the most impact from new work I create, in terms of message and engagement.

Transform, from the series Hong Kong Soup: 1826. The overall series depicts waste plastic collected from over 30 different beaches in Hong Kong since 2012. Here we can see recovered toys, action heroes and transformers, reflecting the inadequate disposal of children’s play. Photo: Mandy Barker

AP: Which expedition or project has been your favourite or had the most impact?
MB: In June 2019 I was incredibly honoured to be invited by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Pew Trusts, to be part of the Henderson Island Expedition, to create new work to highlight the issue of marine plastic pollution at one of the most remote locations in the world. Five thousand kilometres from the nearest major landmass and named by scientists as the most plastic polluted beach on the planet my new series of work, LUNASEA, is in response to this incredible opportunity.

AP: How does it feel to have recognition from prestigious organisations for your work?
MB: My intention was never to win awards or seek recognition, because my aim has always been to raise awareness and ultimately bring change to the issue I feel so strongly about. When I finished my course, I had no idea if anyone would be interested in the work or not, but rather than put it away in a folder, as with previous work, I wanted to try and engage people with the plastic pollution issue. I am absolutely delighted that my work has received recognition, because I now realise that by doing so it has reached new audiences, and
has enabled me to take part in expeditions that I could not otherwise have afforded to.

AP: You’ve drawn on the help of the general public to gather together plastic in some of your work. What’s that like?
MB: Members of the public are very keen to help and get involved with my work and this was shown in my series PENALTY. The project involved the recovery and collection of marine debris footballs by members of the public from around the world. The response was overwhelming and 769 balls were posted for me to photograph, and although I offered to refund postage, the majority of people refused, just pleased to be part of the work.

A shot from the series EVERY… Snowflake is Different. Mandy uses recovered marine debris as a metaphor for snowflakes, with each manmade object offering a different structure. This detail shows – among other things – a cat flap frame, a pepper lid, a bottle, part of a plastic cup, pipe brackets and assorted lids. Photo: Mandy Barker

AP: What kit do you tend to use to create your images?
MB: My kit varies from project to project depending on how I want to deliver the research or message. Process is important to me and equipment can play a part in this. For my series SOUP, I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, for Beyond Drifting I used a battered Canon EOS 500 film camera, and for my recent project, CROWN, I have used a homemade camera created from marine plastic debris itself.

AP: What is the typical process of setting up one of your shots?
MB: For the SOUP series, I place varying sizes of plastic from small microplastic particles, to larger foreground objects, onto a black background. I then layer the three and four images together in Photoshop with the intention to create a feeling of depth. The Beyond Drifting series relied on a faulty film camera that took several images on top each other, and my latest series LUNASEA involves projected images. Each project is a conscious decision to reflect a different aspect about the issue of plastic debris and my work is evolving all the time.

AP: What are you working on the moment – and how has lockdown affected your practice?
MB: During lockdown I have had the time to sort out and organise the huge collection of plastic I now have, which has been sadly ever- increasing over the past ten years.
I have also been working on a long-term project that I have been working on for over the past five years. Luckily the plastic has already been collected for this and I don’t need to travel.