Unnatural history: the new creatures in our oceans

Photographer Mandy Barker’s new book features images of “recent and unique species” found in the waters around Cork in Ireland. Yet far from a celebratory project, the discovery of these miniature creatures is indicative of a wider environmental crisis

In each of the 26 plates included in Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, a sea-borne organism is rendered in intricate detail. Some images are blurry, some are scratched. On the surface, the book harks back to illustrated science journals of old and appears to contain the findings of some extensive marine research.

PLADA STEUICKE by Mandy Barker

But all isn’t quite as it seems. In fact, Barker’s book is an art project – and the microscopic photography is not of organic plankton, but of bits of plastic debris. Beyond Drifting is a clever critique of a massive environmental problem – and, in focusing in on one small area of Ireland in particular, Barker highlights a global issue.

According to the research she footnotes in the book, around eight million tons of plastic finds its way into our oceans each year. This then affects nearly 700 different marine species – from becoming entangled in the debris to injesting it and distributing the waste plastic through the food chain. “This”, Barker writes, “reflects an unnatural threat to the biodiversity of our planet”.

To obtain her samples for the photographs, Barker followed the path of 19th-century naturalist John Vaughan Thompson, who recorded plankton and marine life around the coast of Ireland in the 1820s. His 1830 memoirs (carried by Charles Darwin on his second voyage on HMS Beagle) suggested the ‘Imperfectly Known Animals’ title Barker uses for her own collection, while she also visited the Cobh area of Cork as Thompson had done some 200 years earlier.


Unlike Thompson’s recordings, however, the samples Barker brought back include electrical wire, plastic bottles, bags and containers, brush bristles, toys, phone casings and books. For Beyond Drifting, these objects were photographed on a black background and each specimen was given a pseudo-Latin name that contains word ‘plastic’.

In terms of how these larger pieces of plastic affect marine life – the evidence in startling. Each piece degrades into what is known as ‘microplastics’ – these in turn enter the human food chain through being injested by smaller organisms. There is now evidence of microplastic ingestion by marine zooplankton, Barker writes, “indicating that species at lower trophic levels of the marine food web are mistaking plastic for food, which raises fundamental questions about potential risks to higher trophic level species”.

Beyond Drifting has also come to the attention of the Prix Pictet Award – the prize given to a project that uses photography “to draw global attention to issues of sustainability, especially those concerning the environment”. This year’s shortlisted projects – including Barker’s series – are about to go on show at the V&A in London from May 6-28.

Barker’s book mixes striking imagery with texts on the plight of our oceans. Quoting from Dr Richard Kirby’s study, Ocean Drifters, she situates the scale of the crisis and turns our attention to the virtually-invisible world of ‘phytoplankton’.


“Despite their small size phytoplankton account for more than 50% of all photosynthesis,” Kirby writes. “Although people are generally unaware of their presence beneath the sea’s surface, the plankton create the characteristic smell of the sea and they are even instrumental in cloud formation. Plankton play a key role in life and are perhaps the most vital organisms on Earth.”

Barker’s work – in fact much of her wider work to date – aims to highlight our mistreatment of the seas and oceans. In framing the objects which we are putting into them at an alarming rate, her work will hopefully bring more attention to a vital environmental issue.

Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals was created as part of Barker’s residency at Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, Cork. The book is designed by Barker and Tiffany Jones and is published by Overlapse (£35). It has a printed buckram cover, section-sewn binding and includes a book ribbon and dust jacket. Hand-finishing includes a library ticket holder and a hazard/warning label that seals the index pages where the plastics are revealed. See overlapse.com and mandy-barker.com

Spread from Beyond Drifting showing some of the found plastic

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