Back in December, artist Mandy Barker issued a strange request via social media: she wanted people to collect washed up soccer balls they found on beaches and send them to her. “Calling all footballs,” she wrote. Four months later, after receiving pyramids of packages, she’d amassed 769 of these marine debris soccer balls, plus 223 other types of balls (and some wildlife–one ball housed an ant’s nest; another was home to a family of crabs). 89 people had harvested these from 41 different countries and islands around the world, from 144 different beaches.
Just in time for the World Cup, the U.K.-based artist has transformed this waste into an eye-catching photo series, called Penalty, which aims to raise awareness about marine plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Arranged against black, the colorful, sea-gnarled balls resemble galaxies of waste. Viewed abstractly, the images are simply beautiful. But they take on a more sinister aspect when you realize they represent just a tiny fraction of the pollution clogging our oceans.
The four images depict the accumulation of soccer balls in four strata: the world, Europe, the U.K., and the balls collected by one person (an impressive 228). In addition to the collections, she’s photographed 32 individual soccer balls to serve as waste portraits of the countries from which they were rescued. 32 is not only the number of panels that comprise the “traditional” soccer ball, but is also the number of qualifying teams in the World Cup Finals. The portraits are ordered such that they represent a timeline of their predicted age, based on their printed labels. Barker aims to “highlight the penalty we will ultimately pay for this global problem,” as she writes on her website.
Barker’s work often has an environmentalist bent–in a previous project, Shoal, she collected plastic marine debris trawled from the waters between Hawaii and Japan after the 2012 tsunami. Together, these series visualize the vastness and intractability of the problem, as water-logged soccer balls and plastic debris are more easily harvested than, say, the chemical waste that ends up in the ocean’s depths.