‘People think it’s just a pretty picture – then they realise it’s pollution’

Award-winning British photographer Mandy Barker first went to Cobh, Co Cork, in 2017 for a month-long residency as part of her pioneering work chronicling marine pollution.

Her beautifully haunting images of plastic debris discarded all over the world have earned her plaudits from, among others, David Attenborough and Time magazine.

“The images draw them in visually because people think they’re looking at a really pretty picture or something visually aesthetic,” she said. “Then they read the caption and realise actually what it means and what it is and where I collected it from, so it’s that shock factor, the stab-in-the-back element of what I do.”

Now the art project involving plastic found in Cork has led to her winning her highest accolade to date. It was shortlisted for the largest photography awards in the world, the Prix Pictet, which she said was a “huge honour” for her.

“I did a residency in Cork for the Sirius Arts Festival and I created a pop-up there, which has been shown in 20 different countries and was created in Ireland,” she said.

“When I was doing the project there, I did an art residency for over a month at the Sirius Art Centre and I collected plastic from the river in Cork, just outside the centre. In the resulting series, Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals, she used pieces of plastic found in Cork and depicted them as marine life.

Among the items were the arm of a Barbie doll, a plastic six-pack ring and a wheel from a baby stroller.

“I had a fabulous time there, I absolutely love Ireland. The people are so friendly and the scenery is just breathtaking. I had the chance to travel a little bit when I was there,” she said. “But, sadly, Ireland is not alone. It’s a global issue and there was a horrendous amount of plastic in Cork Harbour.

“I took part in a clean-up that was organised while I was there. We recovered tons of plastic from the shoreline.

“It’s not Cork’s problem necessarily – plastic travels all around the world and there’s no real way of knowing where it’s come from.”

Ms Barker said she had found “everything” during her work highlighting marine pollution.

“It’s been a complete mixture – a lot of plastic bottles and single-used items,” she said. “There’s been lots of toys, household products, bleach bottles and toothbrushes. You name it, it’s there.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years now and nobody had heard of plastic pollution and they certainly hadn’t heard of it in the sea. But in the last three years, since David Attenborough did his programme on Blue Planet showing whales eating plastic buckets and things like that, that’s really touched people.”

Ms Barker’s acclaimed work features in National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic? photographic exhibition, which is open now and runs until November 12 at Harbour Plaza in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin.

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