Confronting Plastic Pollution

It is estimated that people in England uses 2.7 billion items of single-use cutlery and 721 million plates per year – contributing to plastic waste and pollution. In January 2023, Secretary of State for Environment Thérèse Cofey announced a far-reaching ban on these items – as well as trays, bowls, balloon sticks, polystyrene cups and food containers – effective from October.

For the past decade, artist Mandy Barker (b. 1964) has engaged in this conversation, specifically in relation to ocean waste. She is best known for assembling visually captivating, yet disturbing, scenes from ubiquitous items found in seas. Retrospective Our Plastic Ocean follows the photographer as she accompanies scientists on expeditions from Hawaii to Japan, tracing the debris of the 2011 Tsunami and taking viewers on board Greenpeace’s Beluga II ship. The resulting compositions are some of the most
effecting visual commentaries on marine pollution to date.

Barker’s work is instantly recognisable and characteristically eerie: cotton buds, lids and toys float in a void, with only pinpricks of light. At first glance, we appear to be looking at sea creatures or coral reefs. The reality is much darker. Soup 500+ (2011), for example, records the amount of rubbish found inside the digestive tract of a dead albatross chick. Elsewhere, Bird’s Nest (2011) depicts balls of tangled fishing line and other debris collected in its path. The series is a meticulously detailed compendium of discarded litter from shorelines across the world. “I recover more or less the same type of plastics all over the world,” Barker notes. “They’re just adorned with different logos.”

Our Plastic Ocean
Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries | Until 11 June

Plastic SOUP
Centre for British Photography, London | 8 June – 24 September

Words: Eleanor Sutherland

Image Credits:
1. Soup, Bird’s Nest ©️Mandy Barker
2. Mandy Barker, INDEFINITE – 600 Years . Monofilament & Macro filament Fishing. Line (2016).
The World, From the series Penalty © Mandy Barker