August 2, 2021

Photography and the Plastic Debate

Growing up in the smallest state on the African continent, the Gambia, I often accompanied my mother to the local market to buy groceries from nine. I vividly remember going into the pantry and gathering two or three plastic bags and a few containers before heading out. Now, my grocery shopping experience is different. I go out with a shopping list and my wallet, and return with a significantly large amount of single-use plastics. Besides these experiences taking place on different continents, the difference between the two experiences is how our attitude has changed towards using single-use plastics. Today, one will struggle to go a day without encountering plastics. 

The benefits of plastics are undeniable. The material is cheap and easy to manufacture. They are lightweight and resilient, and unlike metal, plastics do not rust or corrode. However, these unique properties, which make plastics invaluable, also make them problematic for the environment. Nature relies heavily on circular processes to keep our ecosystem in balance. Thus, the seemingly indestructible nature of plastics causes a disturbance in natural cycles, which leads to adverse environmental problems.

This report examines how contemporary practitioners use photography to highlight the plastic problem.

To examine how contemporary practitioners engage in the plastic debate, a study of research reports on single-use plastic usage and life cycle assessments was carried out to understand the plastic problem. This study aims to understand why contemporary photographers are involved in the plastic debate.

In addition, the contribution of contemporary photographers to the plastic debate was examined through online interviews and articles to examine how these photographers engage with the issues of the debate.

The Plastic Problem

“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastics for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight)”(World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company. 2016).

In the past, the word plastic referred to a pliable and easily shaped material. Recently, the word plastic describes a category of polymers (of many parts) formed from long chains of molecules.

Polymers exist naturally in nature as cellulose; the material that makes up the cell walls of plants, for example, is cellulose. However, humans have learned to manufacture synthetic polymers over the last century using carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels.

This report focuses on single-use plastic; an umbrella term used to describe various plastic products; these products are discarded after a single-use. Plastic bags are the most common single-use plastic. On estimate, about 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide annually, and their environmental impact has created much debate (Ekvall et al. 2020). Nevertheless, finding an alternative fit-for-purpose and more sustainable to replace single-use plastics can also be controversial.

Single-use plastics offer great functional benefits. Plastic packaging (a type of single-use plastic), for example, extends shelf life and reduces food waste. Plastic packaging, however, has an inherent design flaw: its intended useful life is less than one year, but the material lasts for centuries. 

Plastic usage has increased twenty-folds in the past half-century, and expected to double further in the next twenty years. This increase is driven mainly by the linear model of take-make-waste, the hallmark of today’s consumerism and throw-away culture. Hence, USD 2.6 trillion worth of plastic goods is sent to landfills and incinerators annually (World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company. 2016). 

Even when recycled, plastics are mostly recycled into lower-value applications; they are not recyclable after use. Consequently, each year 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean. Current research shows that there are about 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean. By 2025, the ocean will contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean (World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company. 2016).

Plastic litter in the maritime environment has been identified as one of the most critical global problems by the United Environment Assembly and the G7 Leaders declaration 2015 (Werner et al. 2016). 

Plastics persist due to the growing demand for new single-use plastic, fuelled by a poor reusability rate, and waste management systems ineffective at managing the volume of plastic waste produce.

Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker is an award-winning international photographer whose work focuses on marine plastics to raise awareness of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Barker has contributed significantly through her work for more than ten years to the plastic debate, often collaborating with scientists to highlight the harmful effects of plastics on marine life and ourselves.

“The aim of my work is to engage with and stimulate an emotional response in the viewer by combining a contradiction between initial aesthetic attraction along with the subsequent message of awareness” (Mandy Barker, cited in Staugaitis 2018).

Behind the playfulness of her work, Barker’s photographs have a serious aim. This is because Barker sees art as a communicative tool that educates and informs. She intends to create aesthetically pleasing images that encourage people to act, move emotionally, or take notice, stimulate debate, and ultimately change.

In her series Shelf-Life (2019), Barker depicts the direct effects of marine animals biting plastics. All the plastics used in this series were recovered from Henderson Island, a UNESCO world heritage site in the South Pacific. More than six tonnes of plastic were recovered from this tiny remote island.

“My work has to be accurate if it is to have credibility” (Mandy Barker, cited in Discoverty Society. 2016).

Barker meticulously engages with scientific research. This engagement gives her work the integrity and objectivity needed to encourage her audience to act. In a sense, her works sit between science and her audience, making sense of complex statistical figures and arguments. Consequently, Barker works directly with scientists to study the issues first hand on scientific expeditions. This collaboration inspires credibility in her work.

Besides Barker’s engagement with scientific research to inspire the creation of her works, she often collaborates with her audience; in an interview with Oceanic Global (Patel 2018b), Barker revealed the process behind creating the Penalty series.

“I wanted to engage a new audience at the time of the 2014 FIFA World Cup by asking the global public to collect marine debris footballs from there local beaches... I put a call out on social media for people to send their collected balls to me to photograph for a new image...I had hoped to get around 100 balls, but in total I received 769 plus 233 other types of balls recovered from the sea!” (Mandy Barker, cited in Patel 2018b).

Such collaboration allows Barker to directly connect with the public in the creation of her work. It also stimulates debate about the leakage of waste into the maritime environment and encourages social responsibility. 

The publication of this series in more than 30 countries during the World Cup campaign in 2014 and 2018 ensured a broad audience. Since viewers watching the World Cup respond to football images, this was the perfect opportunity to connect an international sporting event with marine plastic pollution.

Benjamin Von Wong

Benjamin Von Wong is a viral creative who pairs his engineering and artistic background to create unforgettable imagery that rallies people around environmental and social causes (Patel 2018).

Wong creates his work from elaborate installations documented with stills and moving images; to reach a global audience through exhibitions and social media.

“I believe that art has the power to open up conversation pathways to people who might not be otherwise interested. It creates an opportunity for dialogue and emotional connectivity across cultures and politics”(Benjamin von Wong, cited Patel 2018a).

Wong’s main aim is to use his work to raise awareness about environmental issues (including plastic waste), especially among the sections of the public who are less receptive to scientific facts and statistics.

In an interview with Orion magazine, Wong says his goal is not simply to reach people who already care about the problem, but to lead new people into the conversation. In his opinion, there is no shortage of depressing documentary footage. The idea of these footages is to shock people into caring. Nevertheless, when they are viewed too often, the effect is that people tune out. In a social media era, the world has become saturated with images, and the only way to make a profound statement is by drawing people out of their element and strategically using fantasy and environmentalism (Jacobsen 2020).

Several of Wong’s projects are created by volunteers to help sort and arrange the materials used in creating his enormous installations. For instance, for his Mermaids Hate Plastic project, Wong used an army of volunteers who helped clean and peeled labels off 10,000 plastic bottles. Mermaid Hate Plastics is a visual representation of the environmental impact of plastic leakage into freshwater and marine environments. In this project, Wong calculated that by the time a person reaches age 60, they would have contributed 10,000 plastic bottles to the plastic pollution problem (Stewart. 2016).

In his recent collaboration with Greenpeace and aerial performance artist Katerina Soldatou, Wong produced a visual interpretation of the research on maritime littering, which found that a truckload of plastics enters the ocean every minute. For this, Wong used a truckload of plastics with Katerina suspended above, dragging the plastics into the ocean. This dramatic setup also shows how plastics inevitably flow from land into the sea.

For these dramatic interpretations of scientific research findings, Wong creates detail behind the scene footages. These footages allow his audience to see how the work was created, and add credibility to his work. With his moving images, Wong separates the fantasy side of the work from the scientific findings, explaining the reasons for creating the work. Furthermore, Wong disseminates his work worldwide using social media, reaching people who cannot be reached through photobooks, exhibitions and traditional media.

In addition to studying the works of Mandy Barker and Benjamin Von Wong, an online investigation was conducted to find other contemporary photographers and how they engage in the plastic debate.

The investigations result on the Life Cycle Assessment of Single-use plastics, and their alternative is as follows.

Several Life Cycle assessments found that reusing plastics often can offset its environmental impact. For this reason, a survey was conducted (on Facebook) into how plastic bags we get from our shopping are reused.

Plastic is everywhere, and it is difficult to imagine a modern culture without plastic. Nevertheless, the impact of plastic is detrimental to our environment. From the research undertaken, it is clear that plastic waste is a major global problem. However, the current solutions are ineffective in alleviating the problem. New materials, like biodegradable plastics, are no better than conventional high-density polyethylene bags.

Still, our responsibility is to do something because our survival (as a species) depends on the environment. This responsibility to do something is what motivates many of the photographers examined in this study.

The role of photography in this debate is two-fold; advocacy and documentation. The practitioners in this research lend a passionate voice and a moral vision to the debate. They transform the science and statistics of the debate into visual works that are disseminated globally.

Contemporary practitioners, through their works, immortalise the plastic crisis, so that it becomes evidence of the cost to the environment of our consumer culture, while calling for action.

However, most of the works examined by this research focused on ocean pollution. Consequently, other aspects of the plastic crisis, like climate change, eutrophication, and acidification, are neglected. Subsequently, this presents an opportunity for others to join the debate.

One of the proposed solutions to the plastic problem found by this research was that reusing plastics reduces its environmental impact. The survey found that most people already reuse the plastics they get from grocery shopping. However, 3.9% of the 315 votes in the survey did not reuse their plastics. Thus, there is still more to do to raise awareness among this group. Perhaps, encouraging single-use plastic reuse can be an area for photographers to broaden their efforts. Reusing single-use plastic will help reduce the need for new single-use plastics.

Photography plays a vital role in educating, informing and stimulating change if it broadens its understanding of the problem.

As the debate on the plastic crisis continues, it is incumbent on contemporary photographers to speak out on this issue. Photography has a vital role in showing what has been done and what needs to be corrected. This role takes precedence from contemporary photographers’ action in addressing other global crises, for instance, climate change due to air pollution, social injustices, war, world hunger, poverty, to name a few. 

The problems of the plastic crisis threaten our planet’s finely balanced environmental systems, causing habitat damage that could directly affect our lives. As photographers, we have the responsibility to act, call for action and effect change.