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Art & Culture

Awakening Ethics Through Aesthetics: art that kindles sustainability ethos and social responsibility

By April 2, 2020August 27th, 20202 Comments
Installation shot Altered Ocean by Many Barker © Derryn Vranch

Beyond the realm of science and numbers, art has the power to change the way we think and perceive the world around us. In her work, Mandy Barker inspires others to re-imagine our plastic use, where it comes from and where it is going.  

The concept of using art as an awareness tool is not new. Humans have used it in symbols and visual interpretations to communicate simple and complex ideas and concepts long before the first alphabet. Creating art has always been a way to convey meaning. 

How humans respond to art that communicates sustainability differs depending on the audience; from shock to disbelief to activism. The level of outreach and engagement from art is greater than what numerical statistics and in-depth studies can ever achieve. Artists working on environmental and sustainable concepts blur boundaries between design and science, providing a more refined, stimulating and easier to digest version to their audiences. Human behaviour studies have shown that our response is more positive when we engage emotionally and are inspired to act and think. 

Art as an awareness tool in Mandy Barker’s photography 

Art is playing an increasingly significant role in encouraging sustainable practices globally as we are becoming more conscious about the environment and the future of our planet. One artist who embraced this concept is British photographer Mandy Barker, whose award-winning artwork with marine plastic debris has been making headlines internationally, reaffirming the invisible reality of plastic pollution. 

Despite science calling for immediate action to deal with plastic pollution and other environmental challenges, humans vary in how they attribute meaning and action to these findings. Mandy’s work involving marine debris has evolved over a decade and features plastic salvaged from various beaches. Her most celebrated body of work ‘SOUP’  is an ongoing series inspired by the Great Garbage Patch, an area in the North Pacific Ocean where large amounts of small plastic pieces are floating on and below the surface level. When pairing with scientific research, these multi-layered images involve a complicated process to curate a visual experience that simulates debris floating on and below the oceanic surface. Mandy has chosen her ‘plastic soup’ ingredients carefully from debris collected on her voyages from coastlines around the globe. Most of the plastic she collects for her projects has been stranded after floating in the world’s oceans for many years. She then curates it to become intriguing and aesthetically pleasing images. Once the viewer is engaged, the captions provide the shock factor. The plastic ingredients she provides under each image lay out the facts to convey what exists in our oceans, leaving us with plenty of questions and an urge to find out more and about what we can do to help. 

“I initially took pictures of plastics as I found them on the shoreline, but found people weren’t as interested as they see rubbish all the time on the streets. The whole point of making them attractive is to engage an audience and then deliver all the shocking facts and statistics.”  

Mandy Barker 

In addition to books, exhibitions and installations, Mandy has collaborated with Stanford University students on an immersive project featuring her photographs. The virtual reality experience, brings viewers into “a galaxy of waste, to show how ubiquitous, insidious and long-lasting plastic can be in our world.”

‘Ripple: the unintended life of plastics in the sea’ is available to view for free at 

Shifting sustainability paradigms and inspiring change in our plastic choices 

In her work, Mandy engages the audience about ocean plastics in ways more powerful than numbers and statistics by turning familiar objects into haunting realities that we all have somehow contributed to. She uses her mastery of visual presentations of shapes and colours to create meaning, and she raises questions about our consumption behaviour and the hidden life cycle of everyday products we buy, use and discard. 

In many ways, art can be used as a catalyst to challenge mainstream mindsets about plastic pollution, educate us and influence our behaviour. Art is a conscious invitation to reassess our relationship to humanity’s misused invention and the environment. The hope here is that we can all contribute to change the same way we contribute to the problem, by making informed choices about our plastic use, where it comes from and where it is going. 

For more information visit


 Instagram @mandybarkerphotography 

Twitter @plasticpieces