Artist Mandy Barker has photographed marine plastic for the last 13 years. Visiting some of the world's most isolated locations, she captures the devastating effects of plastic pollution to inspire people to take action.

We caught up for World Environment Day to discuss impact of her work, what the issue of plastic pollution means to her, hopes for the future, and what has shocked her the most on her journey.

‘I always find syringes on most of the beaches I collect from, but I’ve never found this type or amount of medical waste before.’

It’s been more than a year since we worked with you to feature SHELF-LIFE at the Auckland Museum and Auckland Climate Festival. What’s been the response to this impactful exhibition?

The feedback was extremely positive, from visitors of all ages. We had many repeat visitors, who just wanted to revisit the photographs or bring friends to share the exhibition with. People expressed shock at discovering what they thought was coral was, in fact, plastic. This is exactly the response I’d hoped for – to draw people in, and to make them think enough to want to act. With the support of Natasha Beckman and the rest of the team at the British Council in the Pacific and New Zealand, the exhibition travelled to Te Atamira in Queenstown. The SHELF-LIFE series is now being exhibited all over the world, including the Copernicus Science Centre in Poland, The Swedish Museum of Natural History and Photo London in the UK.

Will you continue to explore marine plastic pollution in your work?

Marine plastic pollution has had a profound effect on me. It’s something I cannot turn away from. It’s the one issue that concerns me most. I’ve made so many contacts in this area, and by learning from others, I can now speak about the issue itself, and not solely be an artist. From the scientists I’ve worked with, expeditions I’ve taken part in – to some of the most isolated locations on the planet – I feel I have a duty to pass on to others what I’ve learned and witnessed at places they’d never get to see. I will continue to represent marine plastic for as long as new issues and scientific research is being discovered.

 What first inspired you to explore marine plastic pollution in your art?

My own experience of finding a coastal nature reserve near to where I live littered with plastic, when it used to have only driftwood and shells on its shoreline.  My work is inspired by current scientific research, by way of reports or directly with scientists. Science is not subjective; it is factual. There’s no room for aesthetics or emotion. So, the work of an artist and a scientist are opposed in approach, but, in some way, they seek to achieve the same outcome. I aim to give science a ‘visual voice’.

What has most shocked you most during this journey?

I was recently in America as Beyer Artist in Residence 2023, and during the residency I was in touch with beach cleaners that were finding significant amounts of hazardous medical waste washing up on the West Coast of the US. I always find syringes on most of the beaches I collect from, but I’ve never found this type or amount of medical waste before, which really shocked me. Speaking with scientists there, sadly, these items are likely to have come from a Caribbean Island with no infrastructure to manage its own waste.

Image from SHELF-LIFE showing plastics collected on the shore of the isolated, uninhabited Henderson Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the South Pacific. 
Children in the Solomon Islands collecting plastics to create artworks during a workshop with Mandy Barker, supported by the British Council and the British High Commission. 

What has given you most hope for the future of our planet?

The younger generation. In all the workshops and talks I’ve done with the younger generation – including a virtual workshop with the British Council in the Solomon Islands last year, as part of wider engagement for the SHELF-LIFE exhibition – they listened intently and were enthusiastic in their desire to create change. And I believe they will. Regrettably, we’ve left them this legacy, and they’ll be left to manage and find new alternatives.

I’m also hopeful about recent talks in Paris about the UN Treaty on Plastics Pollution. Governments are aiming to agree on a common approach by the end of next year. It is hoped it will be legally binding and, if so, this could be a huge step in the fight against plastic pollution.

What role do art and artists have in encouraging people to take climate action?

In my case, by making the public aware of the facts concerning the detrimental effects of marine plastic, in an accessible artistic way, I hope to connect the issue to a wider audience and, in some way, inspire change. If art 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 take action. If I didn’t believe my work did any of these things, I wouldn’t be motivated to continue.

Given this year’s World Environment Day is about solutions to plastic pollution, what do you think is the single biggest change we could make to tackle the issue?

Stop manufacturers producing unnecessary plastic products and, as consumers, stop buying this plastic, especially single-use plastic items that are only used for a short amount of time. Not disposed of correctly, these items can end up in the ocean and, breaking down into smaller pieces, can end up in the stomach of a bird that mistakes it for food.

A recent article from Inside Climate News stated: ‘the United Nations has warned that chemicals in microplastics are associated with serious health impacts, including changes to human genetics, brain development and reproduction.’ I hope this quote alone will be enough to make us want to act, and to find alternatives to the material of plastic at the design stage of production.