Footballs washed up on beaches around the worldMandy Barker, PENALTY

This artist used washed-up footballs to highlight plastic waste

Mandy Barker collected footballs that had ended up on beaches all over the world

An image of Ciaran Varley
Ciaran Varley
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Mandy Barker has always been interested in football. As a kid she played in the school team, and on weekends she would go and watch Hull City with her grandad. As a grown up, she works as a photographer and visual artist, and has managed to combine two of her passions - the sport she loved as a child and a need to highlight the amount of marine plastic waste that washes up on our shores. 

The two may not seem to go hand-in-hand, but in her latest photography project, PENALTY, Mandy uses striking images of washed-up plastic footballs to shine a light on the scale of plastic debris in the world’s oceans. 

Football from USAMandy Barker, PENALTY
From the USA

This isn't the first time Mandy's worked with plastic waste. She's been photographing it for nine years now, and was first inspired to do so on trips back home to Hull. “I kept revisiting the beach where I used to go with my parents and noticing more waste," she says. "One time I went back to visit my parents, and on the beach I noticed a fridge, a computer, and a TV screen.”

She came up with the idea for her latest project in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup - the first time she has merged her art with football.

“Obviously, football is a game people play all over the world, and I hoped the use of the football as a single item might resonate to highlight awareness in a global way,” she explains to us.

Trevor brookingMandy Barker, PENALTY
Trevor brooking

So she put a request out on social media for people around the world to send her footballs that had been found washed up on beaches. Over the coming months, news of the project spread, and people from all over the world wanted to get involved.

In four months, 992 marine debris balls were recovered from 41 different islands and countries and from 144 different beaches, by 89 members of the public.

Football from Robben IslandMandy Barker, PENALTY
From Robben Island

Mandy was sent balls from a local beach cleaner in Kenya, a scientific researcher from Hawaii, the Brijuni Islands in Croatia, and also Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years in South Africa. The balls were usually first photographed on the beaches where they were found before being sent to Mandy, at which point she logged the whole process.

She says she was surprised by the scale of the response.

“I expected maybe to get about 30 balls,” she tells us. “After all, it’s quite a big ask for people to go down to their local beach, pick up a ball (that’s often sodden) and post it to me.”

Football covered in antsMandy Barker, PENALTY
Football covered in ants

Mandy explains that when some of the balls arrived, they were still sloshing about with water. Inside one was a shrew. Another contained an ants' nest, and another a family of crabs.

And many of them came with a story.

“I got one that had come across in the tsunami from Japan and was recovered on the West Coast of the United States,” she tells us. “The man who found it there traced it back to a man who had lost it in Japan in 2011. It had the name of the place it had come from written on it, so this man who found it traced it back to that town.”

Football from JapanMandy Barker, PENALTY
From Japan

Others came from closer to home. A woman who worked rescuing seals off the coast of Cornwall sent Mandy a ball which she'd had for some years.

“When she pulled the net up one time, there was a football next to this seal she had rescued,” Mandy says. “She kept the football on her mantelpiece for several years, and when she saw what I was doing, she sent it over to be part of my piece.”

Throughout the project, the balls had to be stored in Mandy's house and shed in Leeds. At one point, she decided to lay them out on a football pitch to photograph them.

Footballs laid out on pitchMandy Barker, PENALTY
All 992 balls

“I thought it might be nice to see them in situ,” Mandy explains, adding: “The balls have been sent from all over the world, but it was nice to lay them all out on a pitch – like bringing them back to the start of their journey.” 

She tells us one of the biggest contributors to the project was a coastal ranger in Scotland. 

“He contacted me initially to tell me he’d found 30 footballs. Then I got another email to tell me that he’d found 70. After about three weeks, he said he’d got 228 footballs! I had to drive up to the West Coast of Scotland in a small van.”

Mandy has used all of the balls collected from this trip in this one image. 

Balls collected from ScotlandMandy Barker, PENALTY
Balls collected from Scotland

She believes engaging the public in this way helped with the project’s aims to bring attention to the amount of marine plastic waste. By collecting and posting the debris, the public became actively involved in the process.

Some of the balls Mandy received had also weathered the years. There are balls in the collection from nine previous World Cups, including balls from the 2010, 2006, 2002, 1994, 1990, 1986, 1982, 1970 World Cups and a Frido World Cup ball - which are pretty rare - which appears to be from the 1960s.

Football from Mexico '70 World CupMandy Barker, PENALTY
From Mexico '70 World Cup

“The age of some of these tells you something about how long these plastics survive," Mandy says.

She also has footballs with printed signatures of Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking. 

FridoMandy Barker, PENALTY
Frido ball

The images are certainly striking.

“I wanted it to look 3D, as if you were looking under the ocean surface and seeing all of this plastic that’s been collected,” Mandy says.

Football with Kevin Keegan's printed signatureMandy Barker, PENALTY
With Kevin Keegan's printed signature

Since finishing PENALTY, Mandy has made plans to travel with scientists to different parts of the world over the next year to explore marine plastic debris, and has exhibitions planned for 2019 and 2020. 

Spain '82 ballMandy Barker, PENALTY
From Ireland

The exact amount of plastic entering and staying in the ocean is hard to quantify, but it is estimated that as much as 10 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Some think that, based on current trends, there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the oceans by 2050.

Disney footballMandy Barker, PENALTY
From Spurn Point, Yorkshire

A four-point plan to reduce plastic waste was outlined by the government in January this year, with their publication, A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, including the ambition of having zero avoidable waste by 2050.

The UK and devolved governments have introduced plastic bag charges, and there are other initiatives proposed, such as deposit return schemes for drinks containers. 

But Mandy wants the law to go go further by insisting manufacturers find alternative, sustainable solutions, and she hopes her work will encourage everyone to be more aware of plastic waste - something which would have helped when it came to the end of her project.

Although a friend of Mandy's took many of the inflated footballs with her to be re-used in Kenya when she visited, others were thrown away.

“Unfortunately, they’ve had to go into landfill because they’re not recyclable. That’s where everything goes at the moment and there’s no way around it," Mandy explains. 

"The answer is simply to stop producing unnecessary polluting plastic. 

"I believe photography has the power to encourage people to act, to move them emotionally, or at the very least make them take notice," she says. "If I didn’t believe my work did any of these things, then I wouldn’t be motivated to continue."