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International Photography Exhibition Coming To Auckland Museum Shines A Light On Impact Of Plastic Pollution

International award-winning British photographer Mandy Barker brings her exhibition SHELF-LIFE to Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum in October in partnership with the British Council Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, and the British High Commission.

SHELF-LIFE illustrates the array of plastic that has washed up on the remote, uninhabited Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific – which is one of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the world.

As the United Kingdom prepares to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow in November, Mandy Barker’s powerful images shine a light on the rising tide of plastic pollution, which not only pollutes the environment and harms marine life, but also contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbates climate change.

This series of 10 photographs was created in 2019, after Barker joined scientists and researchers on an expedition funded by the UK Government and environmental organisations to investigate the scale of plastic pollution on Henderson Island.

The series raises awareness of marine plastic pollution washed up on this UNESCO World Heritage site, which despite being isolated in the middle of the South Pacific and more than 5,000km from the nearest landmass, harbours one of the highest densities of plastic found anywhere in the world.

The images represent the LIFE of recovered plastic objects that have at some point existed on a SHELF, either within a supermarket, shop, storage unit, or at home. These supposedly disposable items have found their way to the natural reef and coral SHELF of Henderson Island and prove toxic to marine and bird life like hermit crabs, seabirds or turtles.

Marine plastic items from more than 45 major recognised brands and 25 different countries, including Aotearoa New Zealand, were recovered from this unique location, home to many endemic species, and one of only two raised coral atolls in the world. Plastic objects that infiltrate this environment and habitat jeopardise species that exist nowhere else on the planet.

Mandy Barker says, “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.”

More than six tonnes of plastic was recovered on Henderson Island in June 2019, including containers of hydrogen peroxide, a McDonalds Happy Meal Toy, inkjet cartridges, deodorant, syringes, ice cube tray, toys, fishing gear, lighters, food crates and packaging, household items, shoes and boots, pens, water bottles and caps, ice skating boot, stiletto heel, toilet seat and toilet brush, hairbrush, diving equipment, industrial pipe and filler, chess, dice & bingo pieces, and ‘Dumbo’ the Flying Elephant, dating back to 1961.

“The research process is a vital part of my development as the images I make are based on scientific fact, essential to the integrity of my work. The impact of marine plastic is an area I have documented for more than 10 years and am committed to pursuing through visual interpretation, and in collaboration with science I hope it will ultimately lead to positive action in tackling this increasing environmental problem, which is currently of global concern,” continues Mandy.

Laura Clarke, British High Commissioner to New Zealand and Governor of the Pitcairn Islands, says she believes exhibition goers may be inspired to rethink their relationship with plastic.

“I’m really thrilled that people in Auckland will be able to see Mandy Barker’s captivating work from her time on Henderson Island.

“Pitcairn is home to one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas and is surrounded by a fantastic array of marine life. But despite its remoteness, it is one of the most heavily polluted places on earth.

“The scale of plastic discovered there on our 2019 expedition and documented in this work is truly shocking. I want to thank Mandy for drawing attention to this important issue and highlighting why protection of our marine environment is so vital – both for the Pitcairn community and the rest of the world.”

The images in this series are inspired by the unique coral reefs that surround Henderson, represented by the plastic objects that pass over them and threaten their very existence. Each image is titled with a barcode – found on the objects recovered – to emphasise the LIFE of plastic that has travelled from SHELF to SHELF.

The impact of Barker’s work has been recognised by numerous international awards and the awareness raised has been lauded by the likes of Sir David Attenborough. A personal handwritten letter from Sir David to Barker reads “I hope your work does its job in raising an awareness of the cause we both care so much about. With renewed wonder and best wishes.”

Mandy Barker says, “My aim is for these images is to end up on the SHELF of someone who has the power to implement change concerning the issue of plastic pollution.”

Auckland Museum Chief Executive Dr David Gaimster says, “Auckland Museum is a site of investigation for people to engage with the global challenges of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. I am delighted that Auckland Museum is hosting Mandy Barker’s thought-provoking exhibition with the support of the British Council Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific and the British High Commission.”

SHELF-LIFE is part of the Auckland Climate Festival and opens to the public in October 2021 when Auckland Museum reopens under Level 3, Step 2 and is free with Museum entry.

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