Documenting an ocean of plastic

Discover how Mandy Barker produces her beautiful but ultimately shocking images highlighting plastic pollution in the world's oceans – using plastic waste found on the shore.
A large number of footballs in varying states of decay are pictured, as if floating, against a black background.

PENALTY - The World. Mandy Barker's series Penalty, released at the time of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, raised awareness of plastic pollution by focusing on an individual object found in oceans around the world: footballs. This image shows parts of 769 footballs collected from 41 countries and islands by 89 members of the public in just four months. Created from multiple images taken at various settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM). © Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker's striking photographs initially resemble beautiful undersea creatures or scenes teeming with animal and plant life. But look more closely and you realise they actually show plastic waste such as carrier bags, fishing rope and children's toys, mimicking the very marine life forms they are killing.

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental issues facing the planet today. Millions of tonnes of this harmful waste end up in the sea every year, and it is found in even the most remote places. It's ingested by fish, mammals and sea birds, causing countless numbers of them to suffocate or starve. It's a problem that's continually increasing.

"Something that's planned to have a few minutes' use remains for hundreds of years in the ocean," says Mandy. "Polymer scientists say that all plastic ever produced, unless it's been burned, is still on the planet somewhere, either in its original form or as nano or micro plastics. It's a horrific thought."

A degraded orange carrier bag, looking like a jellyfish or squid, pictured against a black background.

Titled Indefinite – 1-3 Years, this striking photograph of a partially degraded carrier bag is from Mandy's first series on marine plastic pollution. One to three years is the optimistic estimate of how long the bag will take to degrade in the ocean. Carrier bags are often eaten by animals who mistake them for jellyfish and squid, blocking their digestive systems and causing death. Taken on a Canon EOS 500D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens at 2 sec, f/16 and ISO 400. © Mandy Barker

A cluster of blue PVC gloves, arranged to resemble coral, pictured against a black background.

Indefinite – 30 Years. Mandy arranged discarded PVC fishermen's gloves to look like coral and then photographed them in her home studio. "Corals are destroyed when discarded fishing equipment – such as overalls, gloves, damaged lobster pots and nets – drags along the ocean floor," she explains. Taken on a Canon EOS 500D with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens at 2 sec, f/16 and ISO 400. © Mandy Barker

Mandy's inspiration

For more than ten years, Mandy has been creating artworks using plastic waste to highlight the extent of the damage it's doing to marine life and environments. Her work has been published internationally in magazines including National Geographic and Time, and has been nominated for major awards such as the Deutsche Börse Foundation Photography Prize and shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Pictet.

Mandy was a graphic designer for the first part of her career, but in 2008 she began studying for an MA in Photography at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. While there, she decided to focus on the ever-growing problem of plastic pollution, which she had noticed accumulating on the UK coastline.

"I had collected things like driftwood when younger, but gradually saw more and more waste washing up on the shore, especially plastic," she says. "I decided I really wanted to do something about it, and to see if I could do it with photography."

For her first series, Indefinite (2010), Mandy concentrated on individual plastic items she had found washed up on the sea shore. She brought a collection of these objects back to her house and laid them out on a black velvet background. A life-long Canon user, she photographed them with her Canon EOS 500 film camera.

While doing so, she came up with an idea that has recurred in her work ever since. "As I was photographing these things, I realised some of them actually looked like the creatures that the plastic was affecting," she explains. In these images, a crushed plastic bottle has a fish-like appearance, a carrier bag resembles a squid, and an arrangement of fishermen's gloves looks like coral.

The key point Mandy emphasises in this series is these objects' longevity. The accompanying text estimates the amount of time each item will remain in the sea, which often runs into hundreds of years.

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Beauty and shock

In her subsequent work, Mandy focused on representing the mass accumulation of plastic in oceans around the world by showing large numbers of individual items as if floating in the sea. The series Where Am I Going, for example, shows remnants of plastic balloons, while Penalty features hundreds of recovered footballs.

"I select the plastic waste items initially by what washes up on the shoreline," she says. "It could be a particular colour, or a group of similar objects that could then go on to raise awareness about problems in a particular area or country."

Many of her images show the all-too-familiar everyday plastic items that litter the world's oceans: children's toys, toothbrushes, combs, flowers, inkjet cartridges, cutlery, pipes and packaging. In one shocking image, she shows the 276 pieces of plastic found in the stomach of a single 90-day-old albatross chick.

Her images are carefully constructed to attract us with their beauty and then surprise us with what they actually show. "I want to pull the viewer in to read the information and find out what's going on," she says. "I did lots of experimentation and I realised this was the style that seemed to capture people's attention and make them think about the issue for longer."

Mandy used the approach of shooting multiple plastic objects in the same frame for her 2020 series Shelf-Life. This body of work resulted from being invited to take part in a scientific research trip to Henderson Island, located 5,000km from the nearest landmass in the southern Pacific Ocean. Over six tonnes of plastic were recovered from the shoreline on just that one trip.

In Shelf-Life, Mandy makes the plethora of plastic objects resemble the coral reefs surrounding the island. "As we were sailing to the island," she explains, "I saw the beautiful white coral with the blue sea, then saw all the plastic on the shore, and these two images came together when I was working on the series."

Mandy sees part of her role as bringing scientists' work to a wider audience. "The things they research and write about appear in academic journals or the New Scientist, where maybe the average person doesn't ever get to read them and find out what's going on," she continues.

"If I can create images that can appear in more places than their research would, it can inform and educate people about the work they're doing and what's been found. It's kind of a reciprocal thing – almost like giving scientists a visual voice for what they're writing about."

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A huge number of plastic products, including toys and bottles, in various states of decay, are pictured against a dark blue background.

This image, titled Barcode - 50P 300015 (USA), shows plastic products from more than 25 different countries, which were recovered from Henderson Island, located 5,000km from the nearest landmass in the southern Pacific Ocean. It is part of Mandy's Shelf-Life project, and each image in the series is titled with the barcode found on one of the objects pictured. Created from multiple images taken at various settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens and a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. © Mandy Barker

Equipment and technique

Mandy has used various Canon cameras, but for the past two years has shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. "It suits my style of working," she says. "When I go on expeditions, I might be working outdoors with the camera hand-held in dim light, and the EOS 5D Mark IV is great in low light. Its performance is also important when I'm working indoors, because I photograph in a fairly low light environment with a single natural light source and with exposures of around three seconds, which enhances the colour of the objects against the black background.

"I also need quite large files, because some of my images are printed at large sizes – some have been shown on the side of shipping containers. In the EOS 5D Mark IV I've found that happy medium of getting very good quality without having file sizes that I can't manage and would just slow down the production process."

Mandy has a range of Canon lenses, but for almost all of her work uses the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM). Having this zoom range gives her the option to include a large group of objects or a select few, without having to change lenses. She also uses the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens for the smaller pieces of plastic she may want to highlight in the foreground, to capture the tiniest of details.

She uses essentially the same technique for most of her images, photographing the plastic objects on a black background, either on location or in her house, using natural light.

A huge number of plastic red turtles swirling around against a dark blue background.

Titled Barcode - 4902505085680 (Asia, Europe, N. America, S. America, Africa), this image represents the estimated 600,000 hermit crabs that die each year from being entrapped in plastic. Mandy created the image for her Shelf-Life series using multiple shots of a single plastic turtle recovered from remote Henderson Island in 2019. Created from multiple images taken at various settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. © Mandy Barker

Maximum depth of field, maximum impact

"The aperture I use depends on the size of the object," she says, "but I mostly shoot with an aperture of f/16 because I want maximum depth of field to make sure that all the objects are in focus and 'seen' - it is very important in my work that all the pieces of plastic can be recognised.

"I photograph groups of different-sized objects separately on a black background – from small microplastic particles to larger objects – and then sandwich the images together in Adobe® Photoshop®.* Sometimes I keep the original backgrounds, where bits of seaweed, sand or microplastic powder have been left. However, for Shelf-Life, I blended the layers of objects with colour images to reflect the coral waters surrounding the island.

"Some of the larger foreground objects are placed in Photoshop to enhance the composition, but basically everything is shot as it's scattered. It's often very random, which is the way things would be in the sea. I use an average of about five layers in one image, and the larger bits of plastic combine with the smaller ones to create the appearance of a depth of perspective."

Mandy says her aim is not simply to bring the issue of plastic pollution to a wider audience; she wants to raise awareness in the hope that it will lead to action and people will do something on a day-to-day level about their own plastic footprint.

"They might want to sign petitions, write to their MP or just go to the beach and pick up five pieces of plastic. If people look at my work and it inspires them to make a different decision, that's all I wish for," she says.

"Ultimately, I hope things will change on a huge scale, because that's what needs to happen."

*Adobe and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

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