Photographing Marine Pollution as “Imperfect Animals”
Using an improvised technique to mimic microscopic photography of marine specimens, Mandy Barker captures plastic debris she collects from the ocean. The collection of photographs, Beyond Drifting, is presented as an antique science textbook, which is both meant to trick the viewer, and to connect them to a time when plastic did not fill our oceans. She aims to highlight the harmful effects of plastic pollution to the environment and ourselves. For Polarr, I spoke with her about the project and her new book.
Emily von Hoffmann: How did the idea arise for Beyond Drifting?
Mandy Barker: Beyond Drifting came about from a residency that I undertook at The Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Cork, Ireland in 2014. The Arts Centre used to be an Old Yacht Club and so was a unique environment to work in, situated next to the harbour. Just before I started the residency I attended an International Marine Debris Conference in Berlin and there met Dr Tom Doyle who was coincidentally carrying out research in Cork, and he told me about the pioneering work of John Vaughan Thompson, a naturalist who recorded plankton collected from Cork Harbour in the 1800’s. Combining this with current scientific research that plankton are now ingesting micro plastic particles, mistaking them for food, was an area of plastic pollution I wanted to represent.
“The underlying theme then…reflected ‘Imperfection,’ both through the practical process and by the fact that plankton are now ‘imperfect’ because they contain plastic.”
EvH: In your description of the project, it sounds like you were intrigued by the classic form of microscopic samples of marine life in photography, and how plastic debris could be photographed in a similar way, playing with our expectation of that visual style. Can you elaborate more for our readers on the metaphor you present in your description, and why you feel preoccupied with it?
MB: The images are based on early photomicrographs and photographic representations of diatoms, especially the work of William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840’s. JV Thompson recorded the plankton he found in the 1800’s by writing memoirs and drawing the animals he came across, and my ‘specimens’ are based on his discoveries. The aim of the series is to initially ‘trick’ the viewer into thinking that they are looking at early microscopic specimens from the 1800’s, so it is essential that I photographed the plastic in a similar way, so as to create this aesthetic and metaphor.
EvH: What is doing microscopic photography, presumably in a lab, like? Are there any challenges, joys, or headaches that were distinct from your other projects?
MB: I am pleased you have asked this question because obviously the overall concept has worked, and you have been tricked! — because the objects have not been photographed under a microscope. The objects were placed on a black background and photographed on film, over a period of a few seconds, during which the plastic objects were moved to replicate the way that plankton moves in the sea. To photograph in this way involved a lot of experimentation and failures, which weren’t identified until the film was developed.
But I found this process to be an absolute joy, with certainty removed, working with film and with no expected outcome gave the freedom to make mistakes, which actually turned out to be the basis of the work. During the practical process I became acutely aware of the title of JV Thompsons memoirs, ‘Nondescript and Imperfectly Known Animals’, of which the underlying theme then took on the reflection of ‘Imperfection,’ represented both through the practical process and by the fact that plankton are now ‘imperfect’ because they contain plastic.
“I think the defining moment was when I saw a car partially submerged along with a fridge freezer.”
EvH: Is there any particular image that stands out as especially memorable to you? What’s the story behind it? Why does it stick in your memory?
MB: One particular image in the series that stands out for me is ‘Plividas chloticus’ [top] which is in fact the arm of a Barbie doll. This particular piece of plastic debris was recovered from the stunning location of Fota Island in Cork Harbour, and to find part of this mass-produced US international fashion icon amongst seaweed and crabs in the natural environment is a tragic reflection of our misuse of plastic in both manufacture and of disposal.
EvH: The environment, and specifically marine life and conservation, are strong themes in your work across multiple projects. Can you tell us more about how you became interested and specialized in this area? Do you feel like there’s a conscious environmental justice or activism element to your work?
MB: I grew up in Hull, a port on the East coast of England, UK. Growing up there I spent a lot of time on the beaches collecting natural objects such as stones and driftwood. Revisiting over time I began to notice more and more man-made waste washing up onto the shore, especially plastic, and especially on a coastal nature reserve in habited by deer, seals and rare birds. I think the defining moment was when I saw a car partially submerged along with a fridge freezer, this was the time I realised I had to let others know what was happening in our oceans.
The motivation for my work is to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the world’s oceans whilst highlighting the harmful affect on marine life and ultimately ourselves. For the past 7 years I have only photographed marine plastic debris and it is something that I will continue to do for the foreseeable future.
EvH: This series was created using expired film and faulty cameras. Can you tell us more about that choice?
MB: Capturing the images on expired film and with faulty cameras, again highlights the ‘imperfection’ in both technique and of subject matter. The camera I was using was 25 years old and ironically the plastic seal on the shutter had turned ‘sticky’ over time, causing the film to not wind on properly and produce a combination of multiple exposures and unusual effects. I chose to use expired film again to reflect imperfection and to intentionally make the film grain visible, as a metaphor to the microplastic particles being ingested.
EvH: The book is really interesting, presented as a science book from the 1800s. Can you tell us more about that decision and how you want it to enhance the viewing experience?
MB: The series is presented on an antique science book as a way to connect the viewer with the past. The aesthetics in production reflect a worn, musty old book, and aim to connect the audience with history and nature, and for them to perceive a time when oceans were free from plastic.
EvH: Who or what, in any medium, is inspiring you right now?
MB: I am mainly inspired by words, whether scientific research, poetry or what people say in a conversation overheard on the bus. I think it is vital to be open to all types communication across all genres whether it is considered to be art or not. What I consider to be art is perhaps not what someone else might consider it as. Communication across all platforms including art, is key to creating awareness and solving critical issues.