Exhibition of 3 LensCulture Earth Award Winner: Vienna, March 16 - June 30, 2016

The exhibition ”Seen on Earth” featured the three winners of the Fine Art/Conceptual category from the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015. Mandy Barker’s award-winning series seen here, along with the work of Simon Norfolk and Eduardo Leal, was shown in an exhibition at the Kunst Haus Wien in Vienna (with prints generously donated by Foto Leutner).

Below, we share Barker’s original artist statement as well as a recently conducted (and exclusive) interview with the artist herself.

Artist’s Statement

Over 1,826 tons of municipal plastic waste goes into landfills every day in Hong Kong. Each image reflects the diverse range of these products by highlighting recovered objects or groups that escaped recycling or landfill. Hong Kong Soup: 1826 depicts marine plastic debris collected from over 30 different beaches in Hong Kong since 2012.

The images directly relate to the traditions, events, nature, and culture of Hong Kong, with the intention of connecting the photos with the area’s people, thereby providing awareness about the crisis of effective waste management. Objects include products from manufacturing, retail, household, medical, and hazardous waste alongside agricultural, shipping, and fishing-related debris.

湯 (soup) is a description given to plastic debris suspended in the sea—a direct reference to the waste crisis in Hong Kong. The series aims to engage with the public by stimulating an emotional response, combining a contradiction between initial aesthetic attraction with an awareness of encouraging social responsibility.

All waste in this series has been collected over the past three years. It was photographed in both Hong Kong and the UK, representing a wide-ranging collection of debris that has existed for varying amounts of time on Hong Kong’s own doorstep.

—Mandy Barker


Last year, Mandy Barker was named a Series Winner in the Fine Art/Conceptual category of the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015 for her series, “1826: Hong Kong Soup.”

The project consisted of visually intriguing collages—collages which were, in fact, composed of debris collected on Hong Kong beaches (sometimes all within a single day!). The work calls attention to the severe plastic pollution that is poisoning our world’s oceans, thus hoping to raise an awareness of this dire issue and encourage social responsibility.

Below, Mandy Barker is interviewed by Alexander Strecker, the Managing Editor of LensCulture.

LensCulture (LC): How did you begin working on your series “Hong Kong Soup?”

Mandy Barker (MB): In 2012, I was awarded The Royal Photographic Society’s Environmental Bursary that enabled me to take part in the Japanese Tsunami Debris Field Expedition. The opportunity involved working alongside scientists and educators on a month-long research trip aboard a yacht sailing across the Pacific Ocean.

During the trip, each crew member gave a presentation of their work and one of the team members told us about their relentless efforts to clean up the plastic-covered beaches in Hong Kong. The amount of debris was on a scale I had never seen before; I knew there and then that this would be my next project.

After the trip, I was invited to Hong Kong to speak at a conference and it was during this time I collected most of the debris for the series.

LC: You’ve written that “the research process serves as a vital part” of your artistic creation—can you say more? What is the relationship between the final image that you produce and the preparation that goes into it?

MB: Initially, I collect information from research journals and by attending international conferences. At the same time, working directly with scientific experts who are studying the problem first-hand is a key aspect of my research as well. This direct exposure inspires my work, whether it is a particular species or an area that has been affected, or a particular type of plastic or object that is having a detrimental effect on biodiversity.

In essence, if I am shocked by something I have read, seen or heard—there is a good chance that others will be as well. So that’s often the basis of a project idea.

Later, I develop my thinking through sketchbook journals, which enables my ideas to come together. In sum, the preparation that goes into an image starts from connecting with others, to conceptualizing the idea, to further research and collection, and then finally making the image itself. All of the former steps heavily outweighs the time spent actually producing the final photograph.

LC: Can you discuss how hard science and meticulous preparation can co-exist with things like “creative spark” and “artistic inspiration”? Are the two different?

MB: My work has to be accurate if it is to be believed. It is essential to the integrity of my work that I don’t distort information for the sake of making an interesting image and that I return the trust shown to me by the scientists who have supported my work. Although aesthetics are important, it has more to do with representing the facts of how we are affecting our planet and changing its environments irreparably.

LC: Similarly, do you feel any tension in stimulating an emotional response vs. making an intellectual, quantitive argument? Need these approaches be opposed?

MB: Science is not subjective. It is factual, with no room for aesthetics or emotion. So in that sense, the work of an artist and a scientist are opposed in approach.

But in some ways, the two are actually seeking to achieve the same outcome. My work visually represents the issue (whilst being true to the facts) and thus tries to raise awareness amongst people who perhaps would not get to read strict scientific articles or have the opportunity to visit affected areas, like the middle of the North Pacific.

In this way, my work can help to give science a visual voice whilst hopefully connecting with the viewer’s social conscience. If stimulating an emotional response is what is required to get an appropriate reaction to this critical environmental issue, I have no problem doing this.

LC: Aesthetically, your style has recently crystallized into a distinctive mix of still-life and overwhelming collage. Can you say more about how you settled on this visual approach? Was this a gradual process or did a light-bulb go off, so to speak?

MB: The approach came about because of the message I wanted to portray and so far this has been to represent mass accumulation.

Initially, I experimented with a large-format camera and film, hanging plastic from recovered fishing line and floating on water. But it just wasn’t possible to achieve the depth or scale necessary to duplicate the random way that vast amounts of plastics come together in the sea. So I had to keep trying other methods.

Indeed, each project is a conscious decision to reflect a different aspect about the issue of plastic debris and my work is evolving all the time. A recent project involved using out-of-date 35mm film, and my current research involves creating a dialogue between scientists and samples from four different continents.

LC: What do you hope to achieve with this work? More generally, do you think photography (or art) has an ability to inspire change? I know that alongside the LensCulture award, you’ve been nominated for the Prix Pictet, a prize dedicated to sustainability and awareness.

MB: My goal is to make the public aware of facts concerning the detrimental effects of marine plastic. I hope by presenting this issue in an accessible way, it will bring the problem to the attention of a wider audience and in some way help inspire change.

I believe that photography is a form of communication that has the ability to educate, inform, and increase awareness. In my case, awareness about our overconsumption of plastic and its ceaseless entering into our world’s seas and the harmful consequences that have resulted.

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 stimulating debate and ultimately change. If I didn’t believe my work did any of these things, then I wouldn’t be motivated to continue.

—Mandy Barker, interviewed by Alexander Strecker