Interviews:

> Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals

Mandy Barker / Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals

April 2018
Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi

Mandy Barker is a photographer whose work investigates marine plastic debris. Working with scientists she aims to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the world’s oceans to highlight current research of the effects on marine life and ultimately ourselves. Barker is an award-winning photographer shortlisted for the Prix Pictet Award SPACE 2017, and nominated for The Deutsche Börse Foundation Photography Prize 2018 and the Magnum Foundation Fund. She is a recipient of the 2018 National Geographic Society Grant for Research and Exploration and in 2012 she was awarded the Royal Photographic Society’s Environmental Bursary. Barker speaks internationally about her work to engage people with the issue, and recently told Christiane Monarchi more about the background to the creation of her award winning project, book and exhibition Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals.

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CM: I’ve had the pleasure of reading and re-reading your book ‘Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals’ and I am intrigued to know how this project started. What was the first inspiration for creating this body of work?

MB: Going back to the very beginning, everything started from a portfolio review I had at Format Photography Festival with Peggy Sue Amison. She invited me to apply to do a residency at The Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Cork, Ireland, and it was accepted. Around the same time I attended the International Marine Debris Conference in Berlin and met one of the speakers there, Dr Tom Doyle, who coincidently was teaching at the Environmental Research Institute University College, Cork (UCC). I mentioned to him about the residency, and that I was planning to represent current research that plankton were ingesting microplastic. He then told me he was studying plastic in Cork harbour and also about the marine biologist and naturalist John Vaughn Thompson, who collected plankton specimens in the early 1800’s from Cobh, in Cork harbour and that he was a bit on an unsung hero and that not many people ever knew about him. This inspired my research – looking into the memoirs of JVT and the studies he made in the harbour during the 1800’s in the same places where I was recovering plastic debris from.

CM: Was your project always conceived with the photobook object in mind, or did this evolve along the way?

MB: Initially I took a few experimental images before I realised that I wanted to represent the project by way of a book. When I first saw JVT’s memoirs I loved the idea of an old science book being able to engage an audience with current research, so I had to think of an idea to do this. To be able to engage new audiences inspired by research from the past – highlighting research that is going on now. I also liked the idea that JVT’s work has been somewhat highlighted in doing this work, as he isn’t that well known despite his pioneering discoveries, of the metamorphosis of the crab, and for inventing plankton nets which he gave to Charles Darwin on his voyages.

CM: Could you tell me more about the use of expired film and ‘faulty cameras’ you describe? 

MB: My initial images were taken with a digital camera and for some reason it just didn’t feel right to represent research from around 200 years ago with such modern equipment, so I decided to experiment using one of my earlier film cameras. The camera I chose to use, Canon EOS 500 had a recognised problem with the shutter, caused by the plastic foam light seal that had deteriorated over time and turned sticky (referred to a sticky shutter syndrome) – when I took the pictures in some cases the film stuck to the back of the shutter and repeated images were taken on the single frame.

I thought this was particularly ironic as it was plastic that has caused this fault – the very issue I was representing. As the memoirs of JVT where called ‘ Zoological researches and illustrations; or Natural history of nondescript or imperfectly known animals – Imperfectly Known Animals’ – the title chosen for my book having being edited from his title, to represent that plankton are now ‘Imperfect animals because they contain micro plastic particles’. I thought it would be a good idea to highlight this idea of ‘Imperfection’ also through technique by using these experimental multiple exposure which were essentially ‘mistakes’. Having said that it was then quite hard to make it happen at the right time for each object of plastic – but 4 cameras later – all with the same problem and having being bought off Ebay – I managed the full series. I wanted to use a 35mm camera with film because once enlarged the grain of the film, I felt, represented the microplastic particles that I was highlighting.

To further represent the idea of ‘imperfection’ I decided to use out of date film that I had kept which were several years out of date, I then felt imperfection ran through the whole project – from materials and equipment used – to research and the final printed output. Even the corners of the book have been individually hand-sanded with sand paper by myself or my publisher (very understanding) and the library label on the inside cover is creased over – all to show imperfection.

CM: Looking through your awards and achievements online, I note with interest that you received the Environmental awareness bursary from the Royal Photographic Society in 2012. Could you tell me a little about the impact of this award in relation to your research and current practice?

MB: The award was a turning point in many ways, as it allowed me to take part in my first scientific research expedition, sailing from Japan to Hawaii across the North Pacific Ocean. It enabled me to see plastic debris first hand in a location I would not normally have had the chance to get to, and that I had only previously represented in my earlier work. I was able to photograph every piece of plastic brought on board the yacht during the 32 day voyage, and create a series of work from this. More importantly than this the experience connected me with the other scientists, researchers, and educators on the trip, all with a primary focus on the issue of plastic pollution. They are now colleagues and friends situated around the world, whose knowledge and expertise is something that I represent, asking questions and keeping up with current research is the basis of my work.

CM: I’m looking forward to seeing your works exhibited at Photo London next month with East Wing Gallery, do you have plans for projects beyond that, which you could share?

MB: I have many projects in mind, there is so much to represent, but my next project will focus on plastic micro-fibres, as a large proportion of clothing we now wear is made from plastic. These fibres leave the washing machine, escape filtration at water treatment works and are being found in the stomachs of fish. Also in the way that the RPS Award became a turning point for me, later this year I will be taking part in a unique research expedition to a remote location, which is the chance of a lifetime and which I am still trying to take in.

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For further viewing:

Mandy Barker’s website: mandy-barker.com

Learn more about the Royal Photographic Society’s current bursary awards, and details of how to apply, on the RPS website: www.rps.org