Not Just a Pretty Picture

Mandy Barker’s beautiful images reveal a shocking truth about our disposable lifestyles.

Mandy Barker has a clear aim with her haunting photographs: to raise awareness about how the mass production and use of plastic is harming the oceans. With each new project, she tackles the issue from a new direction and with new nuance, but the through line, the key message, is always the same: We have a major waste problem, and it’s not going to disappear. Plastic, after all, doesn’t biodegrade; it merely breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

In most of her images, artfully arranged plastic trash — nearly all of which Barker collects herself — or the victims of that trash appear as though suspended below the ocean surface. She achieves this visual trick by photographing objects on a black background using a slow shutter speed.

More Online: See more of Barker’s work at

In her Indefinite series, plastic bags, bottles, and forks resemble sea creatures, creatures we know are harmed by ingesting microplastics. The images in Shelf-Life — which depict fishing nets, dice, toy soldiers, and more collected from Henderson Island, a unesco World Heritage Site in the South Pacific — evoke a sense of the island’s coral reefs. And in her Still series, Barker photographs shearwaters found dying along the shores of Australia’s Lord Howe Island, unable to fly due to the weight of the plastic accumulated in their stomachs.

Barker’s photographs are inspired in large part by the work of scientists, and she is committed to accurately depicting her subject matter. As she puts it, “It is essential to the integrity of my work that I don’t distort information for the sake of making an interesting image.”

At the same time, her photographs are undeniably beautiful, a quality she strives for and embraces. “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,” she says. “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.”

All photographs © Mandy Barker.

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