Hong Kong soup

Drawing attention to a crisis, and stunning the art world

19 Nov 2018

“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 realized 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.

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?

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 tons goes into the sea every year. 

“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. 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.