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‘People think they’re looking at a really pretty picture – then they read the shocking caption’

It was 2017 when award-winning photographer Mandy Barker first came to Cobh, Co Cork, for a month-long residency as part of her pioneering work chronicling marine pollution.

er beautifully haunting images of real-life plastic debris discarded all over the world amid the huge issue of climate change have earned her plaudits from David Attenborough to Time magazine.

“The images draw them in visually because people think they’re looking at a really pretty picture or something visually aesthetic. 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,” she said.

But little did she realise that the art project that was spawned from the “horrendous amount” of plastic found in Cork would lead to her winning her highest accolade to date as she continues her campaigning work.

It was shortlisted for the largest photography awards in the world, the Prix Pictet Award which 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 serious art centre and I collected plastic from the river in Cork, just outside the centre.

“The project was based on a marine biologist (John Vaughan Thompson) who used to create plankton there, an unsung hero of Cobh. He was one of the first people who discovered plankton in Cork in the 1800s so I went back to the places where he collected plankton. But of course, there’s plastic there now. So I collected plastic in the same places to create a new project, to raise awareness of the fact that plankton is now eating these plastics.”

The resulting series, ‘Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals’ sees her using pieces of plastic found in Cork and depicting them as marine life. Among the items found were the arm of a Barbie doll, a six-pack plastic ring and a wheel from a baby’s stroller.

“I had a fabulous time there, I absolutely love Ireland. The people are so friendly and the scenery is just breath-taking. 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.”

Mandy, whose work will feature in a National Geographic exhibition opening in Dun Laoghaire today, said she has found “everything” during her campaigning work highlighting marine pollution.

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

“That’s quite common across the world. Virtually everything made of plastic is found, there’s nothing I haven’t found. I actually found an office chair and a sofa once. It’s just unbelievable, what you find. It’s been just about everything that you use in the home that’s made of plastic and quite a lot of clothing too. People tend to buy cheaper clothes now and wear them less and they end up in the sea, it’s quite shocking,” she said.

She first went viral with her ‘Soup’ exhibition back in 2011 so has been highlighting the huge issue for years and initially, she said there was not a lot of knowledge or interest in the problem.

“I’ve been doing this 12 years now and nobody had heard of plastic pollution and they certainly hadn’t heard of it in the sea,” she said.

“But in the last three years, since David did his programme on Blue Planet showing whales eating plastic buckets and things like that, that’s really touched people. Over the last few years, it has really gained momentum and it’s been great to have been part of that.”

Mandy’s acclaimed work will feature in the National Geographic’s ‘Planet or Plastic?’ photographic exhibition which opens today, October 13 at Harbour Plaza in Dun Laoghaire.

Supported by SSE Airtricity, it has teamed up with not-for-profit Sick of Plastic campaign and the National Geographic Society to bring the innovative exhibition here.

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