Mark Phillips is a photographer working on advocating sustainability. His multidisciplinary project Unbroken Solutions combines photography with an understanding of sustainability and social ecosystems. His work has been featured in newspapers, magazines and exhibitions in the UK, USA and Europe.
When did you first develop an interest in photography?
I took my first photographs when I was eight or nine years old. In my late teens, I saved up enough to buy myself a half decent camera. At university, I would wander about the streets with friends from the art college taking photographs.
What is your involvement with the Royal Photographic Society (RPS)?
I am self-taught and thought joining the RPS would benefit my learning. But after joining, I did little with it for years. Later, I helped out with some events and a few years ago agreed to help their Documentary Group. I have been chairing it for the past four years. We run educational workshops on how to research, execute and edit projects. We also have engagement talks that bring together working photographers with our members and visitors.
I received my RPS Fellowship for a series called A World Apart, which is about urban space. I focused on densely populated cities and showed how sports spaces are crucial to help people decompress, to escape, to exercise and build communities. Across these cities, what you see is fundamentally the same.
You have a diverse background in academia. How does it inform your photography?
I started out as a chemical engineer. After a while, I joined a big pharmaceutical company and spent many years with them doing everything from technical support to running operations, project managing and defining strategy.
After giving up ‘big industry’, I had the idea that I wanted to do a PhD. It was born from frustrations that I had with how ideas from other disciplines were often rejected. But I could see that medical science, nanotechnology and computing were converging together. The research became more social science focussed. It addresses how groups seek out partners and build ecosystems to achieve an outcome. There is a body of literature that says the only way to study such a complex system is to address it from multiple perspectives.
The way that I researched my PhD now informs my photographic practice; taking a multi-perspective approach.
How did Unbroken Solutions begin?
I was giving a research talk in Havana, Cuba and took some time out to photograph. I was looking for something different. I was trying to not take pictures of old cars, but there was one with a spanner jammed in the window. It seemed to sum the place up. I did some reading and found a paper that discussed the never-ending life of Cuban things. So, I decided to go back out and photograph that. In the UK I started photographing Restart Project events. This began an ongoing relationship were we work collaboratively. I went to Sweden and Finland for other academic work and photographed their re-use activities. Those stories have been effective when engaging with people in the UK, I thought why can’t we do this here? And now I think we can. The Restart Project with West London Waste Authority and others are creating ‘Fixing Factories’ to prevent electronics from going to waste.
I’m not focussed on showing the environmental problems per se, we know them. Edward Burtynsky is a photographer who has explored this. I am more interested in ways to solve the problems, which involves a complex system of factors.
Exactly how wasteful is the electronics manufacturing process?
My engineering background is useful for Unbroken Solutions because essentially you are dealing with things that are extracted from the earth, made, used, and broken. The materials are extracted from mined ores. A mobile phone does not weight much, say about 160g. But around 30kg is mined and processed which results in up to 85kg of toxic waste, just to make one phone. We are creating a total disaster and this is largely unknown. The public is aware of plastic in the ocean but we actually create more waste from electronics than plastic. There is a need to raise awareness and to let people know there are already solutions that exist.
How were the exploded view photographs made?
Exploded view was made by systematically dismantling an old iPhone in close to the order any repairer would. The screws and plates are all arranged on a magnetic mat, used by repairers to stop the screws moving around. Starting top left on the mat with the SIM card, the two proprietary pentalobe screws then removing the battery related connections before removing everything else.
How has your work been received in exhibition?
It was in Notting Hill for about a month. This was tied into school visits and repair events. At repair events as visitors entered, they were presented with environmental problems and then they were invited to explore the solutions. I then took the exhibition to an eco-village in Market Harborough for two months. Some images have just been exhibited in Photoville, New York and will be shown in Concord Massachusetts. In the future, I’m working on combining exhibitions with repair events in public and community spaces rather than galleries. To create greater exposure and understanding.
What is next for Unbroken Solutions?
It now has its own dedicated website:unbroken.solutions, and I’m working on creating printed materials for a number of different purposes. Possibly some low cost zines, that can be handed out at repair events, and a booklet that I plan to send to councils and waste authorities similar to the photographer Mark Neville, and then I will maybe put it together as a ‘toolkit’. A toolkit to help you to help the planet.
Many thanks and let us know how everything works out.
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