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The problem with plastic: Alicja Wróblewska warns of the great threat to our coral reefs

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In the first two chapters of the Polish photographer’s ‘plastic history’, she challenges the photography industry to consider more sustainable practices

The facts are startling. By the end of this decade, it is estimated that 90 per cent of the reefs in the world will be under threat. By 2050, that threat will extend to all of them. The danger comes from the escalating acidification of the oceans, one of the many consequences of global warming. Coral reefs are among the most beautiful and delicate natural phenomena on Earth, yet as human progress rumbles onwards, they bleach and decay. 

“There is a conflict of interest between nature and human behaviour,” says Polish photographer Alicja Wróblewska. While a comfortable, convenient modern lifestyle is usually dependent on the use of plastic, the environmental consequences are devastating. In her ongoing work, Wróblewska seeks to illustrate and dramatise this conflict. “I wanted to make some kind of statement,” she says. 

From the series Reef © Alicja Wróblewska.
From the series Reef © Alicja Wróblewska.

“The world of coral reefs is colourful and beautiful in a good way. The world of plastic is also colourful and beautiful, but not in a good way. I wanted to combine those two different and contrary worlds and create this new, twisted meaning.” 

The images in her project, Reef, show a series of bright, evenly lit sculptures made up of lively shapes in candy hues, set against clean backgrounds in complementing shades. A longer look reveals they are constructed from familiar objects, such as the blue bottle caps balancing on top of one another near a honeycomb-like structure, formed with cut-up drinking straws. These are Wróblewska’s sculptural renderings of coral reefs, all made from leftover, everyday plastic waste collected from friends (she never bought plastics specifically for the project). “The world of coral reefs is colourful and beautiful in a good way. The world of plastic is also colourful and beautiful, but not in a good way,” she explains. “I wanted to combine those two different and contrary worlds and create this new, twisted meaning.” 

With her eye-catching work, which intentionally draws on the visual language of advertising, Wróblewska hopes to grab the viewer’s attention, to raise awareness about the scale of the problem. “We are aware that the Earth is polluted on the surface,” she says. “There’s a lot of information about how forests or air are in danger, but we are not so aware about what’s going on under the water.” 

From the series Reef © Alicja Wróblewska.

Reef is the first chapter of a four-part “plastic history” that Wróblewska plans to make into a book. The second chapter, Phytoplankton, reflects on the impact of pollution on the micro-organisms that, as the basis of the marine food chain, are fundamental to sea life (and, by extension, life on the entire planet). This body of work takes the form of a series of reliefs, each fashioned from offcuts of the plastic used to make Reef, and with the same strikingly hyperreal aesthetic. “They’re inspired by original scientific pictures,” says Wróblewska. “I wanted to make them easy to read.” Neither Reef nor Phytoplankton is intended to be an accurate representation of its subject matter: both are imaginative interpretations, “somehow in between real life and an abstract future”.

From the series Reef © Alicja Wróblewska.

“The world can operate without so much plastic around. I know that it’s very comfortable […] but it’s possible. Life without plastic is possible.”

At times, it seems as though plastic – and the problems it causes – is inescapable. “Even if someone is trying hard to avoid plastic, it’s just bombarding us from everywhere,” she reflects. The photographic industry is not immune. Even an artist as sustainability minded as Wróblewska is unable to ensure her life and work stay plastic-free. “I care a lot about how my photographs are transported,” she says, “but sometimes I’m surprised when a gallery sends me my pictures from an exhibition and they’re packed in lots of plastic. This is a part of our industry that still needs improvement.” 

Wróblewska hopes that her work will act as a starting point for viewers to reflect on their own plastic use. “The world can operate without so much plastic around,” she says. “I know that it’s very comfortable, and it’s easier to take a few tomatoes when they are packed in a bag, but it’s possible. Life without plastic is possible.” Seen in light of the terrible consequences that might await humankind, the vivid design of Wróblewska’s images also holds a quiet threat. “By killing coral reefs we bring our own species to ruin,” she warns. “If we don’t make changes soon, beautiful plastic reefs might be the only kind we have left.”

From the series Phytoplankton © Alicja Wróblewska.
From the series Phytoplankton © Alicja Wróblewska.
Alice Zoo

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London. She is interested in the processes by which people construct meaning for themselves, often focussing on its expression in ritual, celebration, and recounted memory. Her work has been exhibited in public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Photographic Society, and Royal Albert Hall, and published in British Journal of Photography, FT Weekend Magazine, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

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