Three years after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hundreds of thousands of people still can’t go home. Little pieces of their former lives, from toys and shoes to refrigerator doors, keep washing up on shores on the other side of the Pacific, along with belongings from the thousands of others who lost their lives in the disaster.
This series of collages, made from photographs taken while sailing on a 3,800-mile journey through the ocean debris, documents some of those small reminders of the tragedy. U.K.-based photographer Mandy Barker joined scientists in 2012 for the trip. While the researchers looked at the environmental impact of the 5 million tons of trash that ended up in the ocean after the tsunami, Barker focused on also capturing some of the human impact.
“Witnessing endless mountains of unrecovered personal possessions was unspeakable, but at the same time an essential experience which put into perspective the scale of human loss and the uncertainty of what lay in our journey ahead,” Barker says.
At first, she struggled to take the pictures. “I felt I was intruding into the lives and grief of people I knew nothing about,” she says. “It was very difficult to know what to do. But I had come so far to do this work, I had to reason with myself that through my images I would be able to let others know the devastating effect of a tsunami.”
During the month-long voyage, Barker photographed every sample that the scientists brought onboard. Much of it was tiny plastic particles, but some things were still recognizable reminders of former owners: Toothbrushes and shampoo, flip flops, a Mickey Mouse toy with a broken ear.
Barker felt a personal connection in part because she’d spent time in Japan volunteering with cleanup before boarding the boat. “To experience actually standing in an area devastated by the tsunami and seeing what remains of people’s lives through scattered objects…was overwhelming and will always stay with me,” she says.
For the collages, she duplicated the objects, intending to emphasize both the number of people affected by the disaster as well as the scale of the pollution. Each collage is arranged in the shape of a different school of fish that is affected by marine plastic. "I hope the images will stop people in their tracks to remember the people lost in the tsunami and the loved ones they left behind," Barker says. "To remember how fragile life can be and how we have no power over nature."
Part of the sale of each collage, available directly from Barker in limited editions, goes to support the relief organization she volunteered with in Japan.