Hong Kong Soup

Photographer Mandy Barker imagines a plastic universe

“What I consider to be art is perhaps not what someone else might consider it as,” says photographer Mandy Barker.

Growing up on the East Coast of England, Hull, Mandy spent much of her early years picking up stones and driftwood until, over time, she noticed more and more man-made waste washing up.

“It was especially plastic, and especially on a coastal nature reserve inhabited by deer, seals and rare birds,” she says.

“I think the defining moment was when I saw a car partially submerged along with a fridge freezer, that was the time I realised I had to let others know what was happening in our oceans.”

Inspired to take action, Mandy began photographing plastic at De Montfort University where she earned a distinction MA in photography, and vowed to devote her life to the pursuit.

Among her surreal pictures is Hong Kong Soup, a series depicting waste plastic collected from over 30 different beaches in Hong Kong since 2012.

Hong Kong Soup -1826 – Lotus Garden (The artificial flowers were recovered from various beaches in Hong Kong over the past three years. Includes; lotus flowers, leaves & petals, peony, carnation, rose, blossom, holly, ferns, castor & ivy leaves)

Another image simply shows the arm of a Barbie doll, washed ashore at Ireland’s only wildlife park, Fota Island in Cork Harbour.

“To find part of this mass-produced US international fashion icon amongst seaweed and crabs in the natural environment was a tragic reflection of our misuse of plastic,” she says.

Mandy maintains it is essential for her not to distort information for the sake of making an interesting image, not least to return the trust shown in her by scientists who have supported her work. But is there an ethical dilemma in beautifying waste?

SOUP – Refused (Ingredients; marine plastic debris affected by the chewing & attempted ingestion by animals. Includes; toothpaste tube. Additives; teeth from animals)

She says: “The aim of my work is to create a visually attractive image that initially draws the viewer in, and then shocks them with the caption and facts of what the work represents. It is an intended contradiction between beauty and information to make people question how their food packaging, computer, or shoe ended up in the middle of the ocean.

“I’ve taken photos of albatross chicks who are getting fed toothbrushes and ink jet cartridges. Sadly, there will never be a time when I’m not photographing plastic; something like 800 million tonnes goes into the sea every year.

‘PENALTY – Europe’ (633 marine debris footballs (and pieces of) collected from 23 countries & islands within Europe, from 104 different beaches and by 62 members of the public in just 4 months)

“The secret is to show that rubbish actually has a value, it is worth something”, she says.

Awarded The Royal Photographic Society’s Environmental bursary in 2012, the prize allowed her to join a research expedition sailing from Japan to Hawaii and examine plastic accumulation in the Pacific Ocean’s tsunami debris field. Most recently, in 2017, she was invited by Greenpeace to join the Beluga II Expedition – recovering plastic around the remote island locations of the Inner Hebrides in Scotland.

She states: “If photography has the power to encourage people to act, to move them emotionally, or at the very least make them take notice, then this must surely be a vital element to stimulate debate, and ultimately, change.

With plastic production expected to rise by 40% over the next decade, the public action Mandy hopes to inspire has never been more urgent or necessary.

To find out more about people tackling pollution and climate change, why not read UNLIMITED’s interview with the former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres