Pushing the boundaries of science, art and activism: Mandy Barker
An interview with British photographer Mandy Barker, who is showing her photographic series SHELF-LIFE at Te Atamira from 5 December 2022 - 24 January 2023.
Mandy Barker's SHELF-LIFE highlights the impact of society’s reliance on plastic and the damage it causes to marine life and, ultimately, ourselves. Mandy is an international award-winning photographer whose work involving marine plastic debris has received global recognition for more than 10 years. Working with scientists, she aims to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the world's oceans, highlighting the harmful effect on marine life and ourselves. We asked Mandy a few questions about her practice and the motivations behind it.
TA: Where do you come from and what’s the origin of your connection to nature?
MB: I grew up in Hull, a port on the East coast of the UK. Growing up there as a child I spent a lot of time walking the beaches, collecting natural objects such as stones and driftwood. Overtime I began to notice more and more man-made waste was washing up onto the shore of a local nature reserve that deer, seals and rare birds inhabited.
TA: How did you begin working on your marine pollution series? What/who inspired you?
MB: I realised whilst studying for my Masters Degree how photography could be a powerful form of communication that could educate, inform and increase awareness, in my case about the over consumption of plastic entering the sea and the harmful consequences. Inspiration for me comes from different sources, it could be something someone has said, something I have read or the way plastic presents itself on the shoreline. My work is inspired by current scientific research by way of reports or directly with scientists. Science is not subjective as it is factual and has no room for aesthetics or emotion, so the work of an artist and a scientist are opposed in approach, but in some way are seeking to achieve the same outcome. My work visually represents the issue whilst being true to the facts and raises awareness amongst people who perhaps would not get to read such articles or have the opportunity to visit affected areas, like the middle of the North Pacific. In this way my work can help to give science a visual voice whilst hopefully connecting with the viewer’s social conscience.
TA: Is it just for your art that you began to collect ocean trash or is it your passion for collecting stuff that inspired your art?
MB: Yes since childhood I have always collected things, either picking up in the street, or on the natural side I once collected and looked after about 40 frogs, saving them from a local drain that was about to get filled in. Collecting marine plastic was different, it was the effect the issue had on me, I felt that I couldn’t turn away from what I could see was happening and had a duty to let others know what I was seeing.
TA: Have you practiced photography before starting your marine pollution series or is it something you acquired in order to represent environmental problems and to deliver the message of the subjects?
MB: I have always been a keen amateur photographer throughout my life and working as a graphic designer have commissioned photography, but have never worked as one. My MA Photography course at De Montfort led me from taking portraits to determine a new approach of representing an issue to inform an audience.
TA: Arts and Science – two very different approaches. Do you think the combination of artistic and creative inspiration opposed to the intellectual and scientific point of views is essential for your art?
MB: My work has to be accurate if it is to be believed. It is essential to the integrity of my work that I don't distort information for the sake of making an interesting image and that I return the trust shown to me by the scientists who have supported my work. Although aesthetics are important, it has more to do with representing the facts of how we are affecting our planet and changing environments.
TA: Aesthetically, the style of your artworks resembles a sort of still-life and stunning collage. How do you create your photographs and their inherent feeling of depth and suspension?
MB: The approach came about because of the message I wanted to portray which is to represent mass accumulation. Initially I experimented with a large format camera hanging plastic from recovered fishing line and floating on water, but it just wasn’t possible to achieve the depth or scale necessary to duplicate the random way that vast amounts of plastics come together in the sea. The varying sizes of the plastic, from tiny particles to larger foreground objects when placed on a black background and combined with a slow shutter speed, seem to create this feeling of depth themselves. Each project is a conscious decision to reflect a different aspect about the issue of plastic debris and my work is evolving all the time.
TA: On first impression your photographs are strikingly beautiful. What is your aesthetic ambition and what do you hope to evoke in the minds of people contemplating your artworks?
MB: It is my intention to create a visually attractive image, to be able to draw the viewer to the image and then to shock them with the facts of what is represented. Initially when I photographed plastic as it was found on the shore, the images didn’t hold the viewer’s attention or leave a lasting impact. I realised by creating a visually attractive aesthetic drew people in, and once you have their attention, you have the platform to inform about the problem.
TA: Are your photographs used for environmental education purposes?
MB: My work has been used for education purposes in the school curriculum for the younger generation all over the world. My images illustrate books from primary level education to PhD level students and have been used for the EU International Marine Debris Conference in Berlin and at the European Commission in Brussels. Recently my work and process has been filmed to promote the importance of the UNESCO Biospheres. I am regularly sent images from teachers around the world showing how my work has influenced pupils to either clean up their local beach or neighbourhood and reduce plastic in their schools. I also deliver workshops around the world, this year in the Philippines, Malaga and the Solomon Islands to help engage different age group with their own plastic problem on a local community basis.
TA: So, by creating art which examines the modern problems affecting our environment, you think eco-art has a meaningful role to play in the discussions surrounding pollution and can make a difference?
MB: To make the public aware of facts concerning the detrimental effects of marine plastic, I hope by presenting them in an accessible artistic way will connect the issue to a wider audience and in someway help inspire change. 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.If I didn’t believe my work did any of these things then I wouldn’t be motivated to continue.
TA: What’s next for you? Is the subject of marine ecology a theme that you intend to continue exploring in your work?
I am committed to photograph the issue of marine plastic debris for as long as I am still standing! There are so many problems continually being discovered and researched around microplastics especially that unfortunately I have enough work for the foreseable future.
SHELF-LIFE is currently being exhibited at Te Atamira until 24 January 2023. Many thanks to Natasha Beckman from the British Council New Zealand and the British High commission.
For more information and other work please visit; https://www.mandy-barker.com
Image: Mandy Barker, Fishing Net, from the series SHELF-LIFE, digital photograph, 2019. Copyright Mandy Barker.
Gallery image: Copyright Mandy Barker