The panel at Almedalen (from left to right): The Ambassador to Sweden, David Cairns; Mandy Barker; Martin Gilbert, British Council Nordics Director; Prof John McGeehan, University of Portsmouth; Eva Blidberg, Keep Sweden Tidy; Sir Nicholas Serota, Arts Council England.

"So long as a consumer is presented with plastic as a purchasable option, they will have the choice, and often the need, to buy it. If this continues, then so do environmental problems connected to plastic pollution."

Mandy Barker, award-winning photographer.

Cleaning up our Seas: Mandy Barker in Sweden

Mandy Barker is an award-winning photographer whose work involving marine plastic debris has received global recognition. Working with some of the world’s top scientists, she aims to raise awareness about plastic pollution whilst highlighting the harmful affect on marine life and human life. 

In July 2018 Mandy participaed in a panel discussion at Almedalen Week in Visby, Sweden, which focused on the ongoing issue of marine pollution. 

British Council caught up with Mandy to find out how it went.

What were the highlights of the Almedalen week?

I enjoyed the informal aspect of Almedalen. Being able to drop in and out of events made for an atmosphere that was extremely welcoming. Whether I was sitting in an orchard, a courtyard, or a large marquee, the conversation that often ensured was relaxed, but in no way less stimulating. Some of the connections that I made on the island were really helpful, and I intend to stay in contact with many of the people I met as the next phase of my work develops.  

One of the driving questions for the panel at Almedalen was: How can researchers, artists and governments work together to develop solutions? What would be your answer?

Artists like myself can do a lot to highlight scientific research, providing a message through imagery when sometimes over-complicated statistics or scholarly articles can be difficult for a layman to understand. By engaging with a wider audience through visual means, and using art to intepret an otherwise highly intellectual issue in a new way, science is thereby provided with a new means of communication.  

Once an audience sees the visual articulation of an environmental issue, such as pollution, and reads about related issues in the media too, the combined effort adds weight to the issue in question. This, in turn, puts pressure on people, but also governments, to implement change in terms of how they work. It might result in the signing of a petition, or even lead to shifts in behaviour. For example, from September this year, members of the public will be encouraged to leave their unwanted plastic at supermarket tills and / or return plastics that they have collected to certain stores. The objective being that such action might ensure that governments take notice of public concern, and liaise with scientists and manufacturers to develop sustainable zero-waste solutions for their products. So long as a consumer is presented with plastic as a purchasable option, they will have the choice, and often the need, to buy it. If this continues, then so do environmental problems connected to plastic pollution. 

My photographs purposefuly highlight specific items that are made of plastic, and which we use in our everyday life: cotton bud sticks, coffee cups, straws, plastic bags, and many other single-use items of packaging. I am pleased to say that most of these items are no longer available for use without certain restrictions. I’d be extremely pleased if my images had helped in some way when it comes to raising awareness of these items and their related problems. 

How can we raise awareness of polution in our oceans and, at the same time, engage younger audiences?

I was invited to speak at the Plastic Free Seas Youth Conference in Hong Kong. Most of the audience comprised of representatives from schools and colleges. During the two day conference, the children were inspired to report on what they had learnt from the various sessions and events. They were also encouraged to suggest how changes might be made in their own homes and educational establishments. The conference organisers made a pledge to follow up by supporting their initiatives, and ecourage any suggested changes through visits but also the provision of regular feedback. 

I really believe that it would be a very good thing if workshops similar to this were encouraged for schools and colleges around the world, and that environmental concerns, as a whole, were an important part of the school curriculum.

 Why did you start to photograph marine plastics? 

I started photographing marine plastic in 2010 after noticing how, over the years, man-made waste, especially plastic, was increasingly prevalent on my local beach. As a child, I had always enjoyed being by the sea and collecting natural objects - such as driftwood and shells. But when household appliances, such as fridge freezers, computers and even TVs began to appear on the shoreline, I started to wonder how they got there. I felt so strongly that this was an environmental concern that others should really know about. So the desire to spread awareness about such an issue, which was connected to a personal experience, was what stimulated my work. 

What’s your connection to Sweden?

After my presentation at Almedalen un early July I was contacted by the Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation, who are arranging a conference this autumn. They invited a wide range of policy makers, businesses, organisations and some of Sweden’s most prominent figures, including Sweden’s Minister for the Environment to be present. My images will be shown there, and I am hopeful that they will help open discussions related to the problem of plastic pollution.  

As it happens, plastic waste recovered in Sweden also appears in my work. A plastic football found in the ocean was collected and posted to me by a member of the public in Sweden. I used it in my series, PENALTY.

What impact do you want your work to have? Do you think it’s working?

I want to make the public aware of the facts concerning marine plastic pollution, and understand what a pressing issue it is in today’s world. I hope that by revealing this problem in a visible and easily accessible way, a wider audience will be stimulated to act and help alter the way in which we live with harmful plastics being part of our day to day lives. 

I’m a strong believer that photography is a form of communication that, like the written word, has the ability to educate, inform, and increase awareness. If photography has the power to encourage people to see that plastics are harming sea-life, destabilising the climate and changing our world in irreparable ways, then to move an audience emotionally and make people act is an achievement in itself. 

The stimulation of debate is one step closer to a solution. If I didn’t believe my work achieved any of these things, then I wouldn’t have been motivated to photograph plastic debris for the past nine years!

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