Water Portraits

Photographer Peter Holmes, BA’11, has a head-on approach to tackling complacency around water conservation.
Alberta: 11.8 litres per person every hour.

Peter Holmes’ dad, Roger, is a patient man who loves his son. So much so, he agreed to be the guinea-pig for Holmes’ latest photography project, even though it involved having a bucketful of water poured over his head while reading the newspaper at his kitchen table in Wainwright, Alberta.

“That water was ice cold,” recalls Holmes junior. “I was so intent on convincing him to do this project – that we had to do it inside, and we couldn’t do it in the bathroom – I forgot to use warm water when filling up the bucket.”

But the few seconds of discomfort endured by Roger produced the photo Holmes was after, one that sparked a whole series of what he refers to as water portraiture. It combines art and math to relay a striking message: that fresh water is a precious resource under alarming stress, yet most of us are oddly detached and complacent about it.

After drenching his dad with 11.8 litres of water, an Albertan’s hourly average, Holmes decided to expand the project.

“It’s understandable,” says Holmes. “People have a million and one things to do every day,  and water is a funny resource in that it’s ubiquitous in North America – we turn on the tap and it’s there – but strangely we don’t think about it because it’s everywhere, which makes it invisible.”

But water really is the most important resource, he says, essential in everything from apples to Apple computers. We may be complacent about it now, but Holmes doesn’t think it will be that way for long. In other parts of the world, the situation is already dire. The World Health Organization estimates that one billion people do not have access to clean water, a resource we typically use to flush our toilets and water our lawns here in the West.

The idea for a photography project to promote greater water awareness surfaced when Holmes was a political science major at UBC. He was taking a couple of art history courses and one on environmental politics in the same semester, and was a keen member of the Photography Club. “I looked at what others had done with similar goals – from pictures of tar sands to pictures of pristine bodies of water – and didn’t feel I could add any value,” he says. “But portraiture has a long history of being able to establish an empathetic connection with the viewer.”

Morocco: 4.5 litres per person every hour

Art can produce the emotional response that academic reports and papers often lack, no matter how alarming their revelations. He wanted to find a way of relaying the vital information he was reading about at university in a way that would resonate in the hearts and minds of the electorate, and provoke smarter political decisions and investments. “We toss out statistics in research as if people can understand and relate to them but often they don’t,” says Holmes. Take water consumption. “Statistics are often given per person per year – but over 100,000 litres very quickly becomes unimaginable. How many bathtubs is that worth?”

Art can produce the emotional response that academic reports and papers often lack, no matter how alarming their revelations.

Instead he collected statistics from various sources that were based on the average hourly residential water consumption per person.* The figures were much easier to relate to and consequently harder to ignore. “I wanted to combine portraiture with this prodigious hourly statistic. It finally dawned on me to just take that amount of water and dump it on somebody.”

Washington, DC: 11.8 litres per person every hour.

After drenching his dad with 11.8 litres of water, an Albertan’s hourly average, Holmes decided to expand the project to other places in Canada and then to other countries by working on it during an exchange year in Granada, Spain. (He feels that water is such a regional issue it’s important to take the pictures in the country the stats relate to, using local residents as models.) He couch-surfed with friends of friends living in major European cities, often persuading his hosts to double as portrait subjects, bucket-tippers, or light stands. Sometimes he befriended strangers on the street and enlisted them in the cause using nothing but a friendly smile and the promise of a clean towel.

"It finally dawned on me to just take that amount of water and dump it on somebody."

Holmes allowed himself only one attempt at each portrait, and yet the results are striking.  Making one hour’s worth of water visible in a single portrait somehow makes our relationship with this vital resource personal and immediate. “It’s important to make it beautiful and astonishing because when a person is astonished they’re interested in a way that supersedes factual information,” says Holmes. “And when they come closer and read the statistics underneath they can connect the two and become interested in another way.”

Serbia: 5.3 litres per person every hour.

Holmes is eager to get the images in front of the public. As well as a website, he had an exhibition in Washington, DC, last November, and has had the images printed up in newspaper format. He’s mailed copies of these to magazines, handed them out on the street, and even sneaked them into newspaper dispensers. While in the US he met with the World Resource Institute in DC and The Human Impact Institute in NY and is interested in working with NGOs concerned with water conservation and other environmental issues who are keen to conduct public campaigns.

Holmes’ next project is already taking shape and will combine portraiture with statistics on coal consumption. So if you see a smiling photographer heading your way armed with a bucket of coal and a clothes brush, consider yourself warned.

* This figure is calculated by dividing the input of treated, potable water by population. It does not include agricultural, thermoelectric or industrial uses, but does include restaurants and light industry within the municipal limits.

Water Conservation on Campus

UBC has an intimate relationship with water. Nestled at the tip of the Point Grey peninsula, the campus is embraced on three sides by ocean and river, and bound on the other by a temperate rain forest. The university also sits on a natural aquifer, a porous, layered bed of sand and gravel that holds water and could contribute to future water self-sufficiency on campus.

In 2011/12, UBC achieved a 50 per cent reduction in water consumption in institutional and ancillary buildings compared with 2000 levels, adjusted for growth. The university is now developing a Water Conservation Action Plan that will set ambitious new water conservation targets for its Vancouver campus.

Feedback from public consultations seeking the community’s visions and priorities for water conservation and management, along with a water audit of seven UBC buildings, is being used to inform the draft plan. Five key priorities were identified for water management, including rainwater harvesting; more efficient landscape irrigation; reduced water use and wastewater generation; managing water use in building operations; and education and engagement.

UBC’s Water Conservation Action Plan will be complete in 2012.

In the Okanagan, UBC researchers have been awarded $1.2 million in funding from the Government of Canada to study how water conservation practices can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The university will develop beneficial management practices for irrigation that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration in orchards in the Okanagan and Fraser Valleys. This research will allow producers to improve their production efficiency and minimize their impacts on the environment while continuing to produce top quality fruit.