What a Beautiful Image! Wait, Is That a Syringe?

This year’s FotoFest Biennial takes on the future of the planet.

By Laura Gillespie March 1, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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From a distance, Mandy Barker’s photos are lovely. Some look like sea creatures swimming in the deep, dark sea; others, like windows into the mysteries of the Milky Way; still others, like abstract paintings showcasing intricate designs. It’s only when you get closer that you start to make out pieces of plastic and other detritus—toys, bottles, tubes, syringes and God knows what else. All of it once sat on a shelf somewhere, but eventually, you realize with sadness, wound up in the ocean. And that, says the Leeds, England–based artist, is exactly the point.

“I’m trying to create a beautiful image initially to attract the viewer visually, to make them think, ‘Oh, what a beautiful image, look at that!’” Barker says. “Then they read the captions. They realize that this is really shocking, that all these things have been found in the sea. How does their toothpaste or their shoe or their computer end up in the sea?”

Twelve of Barker’s images and two sketchbooks go on display this month for SOUP, her show at the Silos on Sawyer gallery, as part of the headlining exhibition for FotoFest, Houston’s mammoth six-week photography biennial. The exhibition features the work of 34 photographers from nine countries at the recently revamped Washington Avenue Arts District and the Galleria’s Williams Tower, all organized around the theme “Changing Circumstances: Looking at the Future of the Planet.” The entire biennial, meanwhile, takes place at more than 100 galleries and major museums. Organizers expect this year’s event to attract more than 275,000 visitors, from Houston and across the world.

The conservation theme explores something Steven Evans, FotoFest executive director, calls “one of humanity’s greatest challenges.” “Each artist has an individual viewpoint, and that was one of the things that we were really interested in,” he says. “Many of the artists have worked very closely with the natural world or the built environment over a number of years.”

That includes Barker, who spent seven months between 2010 and 2011 combing beaches in the U.K., Greece, Croatia and Spain for bits of life’s wreckage, arranging her finds against a velvet backdrop and capturing the resulting images. “When I started photographing rubbish on the beach, I just photographed it as it was, sitting on the beach. I found that people weren’t really interested,” Barker says. “By photographing in this way, I think it makes the viewer remember the images, remember what they've seen, and hopefully that'll lead to further action."


March 12–April 24, See website for full location and exhibition information,


The Silos at Sawyer Yard, 1502 Sawyer St.,

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