Ironically beautiful photographs capture rubbish from the ocean

Photographer Mandy Barker collects plastic ocean debris to create striking bodies of work that confront our global inaction toward pollution

Plastic pellets from Hong Kong, photographed by Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker, ‘Hong Kong Soup:1826 – Spilt’, 150 tonnes of pre-production plastic pellets (nurdles) spilt from a cargo container during Typhoon Vicente on 23 July 2012 adds to Hong Kong’s waste issues in the sea and on its beaches.The image mirrors the night sky on the day of the spillage & includes nurdles recovered from six of the worst affected beaches.

As someone who has spent a lot of time on the beach growing up, Mandy Barker went from collecting shells to collecting washed up plastic rubbish on her childhood coastline. Witnessing this change in landscape emotionally fuelled the England-based photographer to start documenting what she saw—and not just in her homeland, but across continents worldwide. This plastic problem is an undeniably huge global issue and it is through photography that Barker hopes to show you what you’ve contributed.

A collection of ocean plastic debris including a toothpaste tube chewed by an animal

Mandy Barker, ‘SOUP: Refused’Ingredients; marine plastic debris affected by the chewing & attempted ingestion by animals. Includes; toothpaste tube. Additives; teeth from animals.

Plastic turtles found in the ocean and photographed by Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker, ‘SOUP: Turtle’, Ingredients; plastic turtles that have circled & existed in the North Pacific Gyre for 16 years as a result of twelve 40-ft containers of bath toys washed overboard on 10 January 1992. Additives; ducks, beavers & frogs.

Research is a really important part of Barker’s process, ensuring her work is based on true facts and underpinned by scientific research in collaboration with scientists and oceanographers. “All the plastics photographed have been salvaged from beaches around the world and represent a global collection of debris that has existed for varying amounts of time in the world’s oceans,” explains Barker of her SOUP project.

Photography has the visual power to inspire, communicate, and educate all at the same time. The beautiful formations are purposefully attractive to gain your attention—you can’t help but be drawn in by the arrangements, the colours, the clever balance and strange beauty portrayed in each image. It’s at closer inspection and with captions like ‘Ingredients; marine plastic debris affected by the chewing & attempted ingestion by animals’ that instantly challenge your admiration for the work. This is exactly what Barker wants to happen.

More than 500 pieces of plastic debris found in the digestive tract of an albatross chick, photographed by Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker, ‘SOUP: 500+’, Ingredients; representing more than 500 pieces of plastic debris found in the digestive tract of an albatross chick in the North Pacific Gyre. Unlike earlier images in the SOUP series, this compact arrangement of debris represents the accumulation inside an affected creature.

A plastic bag can be mistaken for a jellyfish by turtles, photographed by Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker, 1 – 3 Years, (Plastic Bag – A person uses a plastic bag for an average of 12 minutes before disposal. When a bag enters the sea suffocation or entanglement may occur but ingestion is the main issue. Sea turtles often mistake bags for their favourite food of jellyfish and squid when seen floating in the water column).

“I want people to be concerned about the damage that plastic does to the oceans and to the environments and the ecosystems. My sole aim is to form some sort of connection with the public through my work. To represent scientific research and in a way give science a voice to perhaps people who couldn’t readily read about what’s happening.” (UNESCO Biosphere Talk Lanzarote Spain 18 October 2016 Interview)

Marine debris footballs collected by 1 man in Scotland, photographed by Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker, ‘PENALTY – One Man’, 228 marine debris footballs (and pieces of) – collected in Scotland from 23 different beaches by 1 member of the public in just 4 months.

Polystyrene will never decompose or biodegrade to a non-recognisable form, photographed by Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker, INDEFINITE, (Polystyrene – the most significant and alarming offender to impact on marine life. When released into the environment it will never decompose or biodegrade to a non-recognisable form).

Balloon debris found in the ocean, photographed by Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker‘WHERE… am I going?’, Marine Debris balloons collected from beaches around the world. Ingredients; Silver Wedding Anniversary, Now I am 3, Age 5, 60, plain: red, blue, yellow, green, pink, orange, silver, white, Ruby Wedding, It’s a Girl, Thomas the Tank Engine, Barclays, ghost face, unidentified motifs x15, balloon stick, balloon inflation stoppers, Happy Birthday, Happy Retirement, McDonald’s Happy Meal, HAPPY?

Mandy Barker speaks internationally about her award-winning work, which has been exhibited and published globally. You can find out more information and view more of these incredibly powerful works at

Profile picture of Samee Lapham, founder of The Kind Guide

Samee Lapham

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