Mandy Barker on documenting an ocean of plastic

Through her beautiful images of manmade waste, photographer Mandy Barker has highlighted the ugly truth about plastic pollution. Rachael Steven talks to her about her creative process

Mandy Barker creates beautiful images of discarded objects. Over the past ten years, the UK-based photographer has travelled around the world collecting everyday items that have washed up on beaches and shorelines – from bottle caps and balloons to plastic bags and packaging. Scattered across dark black backdrops, these items of household waste take on a strange beauty, like stars glowing in the night sky, or sea creatures drifting in the current.

While there’s a playfulness to her work, Barker’s images have a serious aim: to raise awareness of plastic pollution and its impact on the environment. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic that has been produced since the early 1950s, less than 10% has been recycled, and the majority has ended up in landfills or waterways, clogging up oceans and killing birds and marine life at an alarming rate.

Barker began photographing plastic debris in 2010, while she was studying photography at De Montfort University. Since then, she has worked on numerous projects exploring the subject. In the past few years, she has joined research expeditions to remote islands in the North and South Pacific, as well as the Tasman Sea, working alongside scientists to understand the impact of plastic pollution on oceans and wildlife, and her images have appeared in science journals, newspapers and lifestyle magazines, as well as museums and galleries around the world.

She has also worked on commissions for Ikea, National Geographic and Greenpeace, and recently created a series of images for WeTransfer’s campaign, Planet in Crisis. Her work has been shortlisted and nominated for numerous photography awards, including the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.

Top: Where … Am I Going?, a project featuring balloons and related debris collected from beaches around the world; Above: From Shelf-Life, a series documenting plastic that has washed up on Henderson Island

Barker, who grew up in Hull, has been fascinated by marine debris for as long as she can remember. “During my childhood, I had always enjoyed being by the sea and collecting natural objects such as driftwood and shells,” she tells CR. “Over the years, these natural objects have been taken over by manmade waste. I began to notice household appliances such as fridge freezers, computers and TVs on the beach and began to wonder how they got there.”