Q&A with Peter Holmes: Capturing the Invisible


Canadian photographer Peter Holmes was growing frustrated with the seeming inability of the policies he was studying at school to have an effective impact on real life politics.

"I wanted to combine my studies in international relations and political science with my passion for photography," said the 26-year-old Alberta native, who graduated from the University of British Columbia in May 2011.

Shifting from his typical commercial shoots for the music and fashion industry, Holmes launched a new project, Water Portraits, in 2009. It combines portraiture with national and municipal statistics, specifically, the amount of water consumed per person per hour, as illustrated by dumping buckets of water on people who are willing to have the deluge frozen in time. The portraits are reproduced on newsprint and offered for public display around the world. The series of 17 portraits has been shot in 12 countries, including Canada, the United States, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Serbia, Turkey and Morocco, plus individual cities, like London, Washington, D.C. , New York City, and Vancouver.

"I feel very strongly that this is a fine art piece, a portraiture that combines statistics that govern our lives in an important way," Holmes said. "But there's also the public awareness aspect."

Holmes recently contacted the United Nations about hosting an event for World Water Day. He's willing to ship his posters anywhere in the world to raise awareness about water conservation. And he's working on revamping his website to provide more links and resources about how to get involved in efforts to save water. I sat down with him last week, while he was in town for FotoWeek DC, to learn more about his vision, his creative process and his goals for the project. View the portraits online: waterportraits.org.

What is Water Portraits?

At its very basic, Water Portraits is pictures of people getting water dumped on top of them, but the amount of water is how much an average person in that country consumes in one hour. And that's residential consumption, measured by a city's water input, divided by how many people are in that city.

It's an attempt to combine statistics with portraiture. By combining the academic aspect of statistics with the personal and artistic nature of portraits, there's an attempt at creating some empathy within the viewer.

What inspired you to do this project?

It was borne more out of a frustration than an inspiration. I wanted to do a creative project around water, so I looked at multiple options, like renting a small plane and taking aerial photos, but a lot of that had already been accomplished by other more experienced photographers with bigger budgets. I wanted to see what I could contribute with my skills.

Why water?

Water is such a high-level resource. It's a simple yet complicated element, and it's so pervasive in everything from our politics to our goods and the way that they're produced. It feels worthy of further study in the field of art. There's so much academic research on it, but it's also inaccessible to regular people.

Water is so important and it's everywhere. But it's invisible in a lot of ways. Only about 68 percent is water that we actually see, like when we're brushing our teeth, flushing the toilet, showering. Most of it is invisible, flowing under our cities, leaking out through our pipes, in our washing machines, watering our lawns at night. It's important to visualize that invisible consumption. Out of sight is truly out of mind.

Did you have a specific experience or turning point that inspired this project?

I started the project in 2009. There was an event in Vancouver that got me started thinking about this. There was heavy rainfall and it turned our water slightly brown. The water was still drinkable but people were freaking out. It was on the news everyday and people were fighting over bottled water at the stores. That made me realize that, not only do we take water for granted, but if we ever did run out of water, it takes very little time for politics and people's relationships to get very heated.

What are you trying to achieve?

I want people to be astonished, because when somebody's astonished, they're interested in a way that is different from when they're being told something. They are being given a visual statistic that you might read in any old mundane news article about water consumption, but it's presented in a way that makes it real. In that way, I hope to instill a sense of wonder about why is there so much water being used? If I can get somebody to ask, "how can that be?" then I think that's all what art can do.

What is it about still photography that moves people into action?

It's really effective, especially when you're dealing with splashing water, because then you have a real sense of a frozen moment, because water doesn't usually hang around. I've seen videos of this happening; it happens so fast. The water just falls immediately and it's gone. It's only when you go back and look at photos that I've taken that you can see it step by step. I think it's really interesting to compress one hour's worth of water into a single image.

How do you compose your photographs?

The camera I use takes six frames per second on high speed, so I usually get two to three  photographs where most of the water is in the frame. Generally, I pick the ones where the water is in the frame, and I can see the subject's face.

A lot of people I shot in Paris, for example, would ask me why I don't shoot them next to the Eiffel Tower or something. It has to do with the water itself and the splashing and the portraits. The statistical aspect and the splashing is very visually complicated. And if you add another element of complication to the background, then it becomes too much. So I try to keep my backgrounds simple, if possible. It's very important that it's near or at a place where the subject goes habitually, because it's a residental portrait. It's not something that happens out of the ordinary. It happens every day, every hour. I suppose I could've taken somebody while they're sleeping, because that's the truth of the statistics. It's important that it's connected to the person's home.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned from doing this project?

My personal projects tend to revolve around things that I question myself. Partly, it's liberal guilt, to be honest. I live in Vancouver and I don't pay for my water consumption. I could leave the taps on all month long and not pay for that. And that's strange when I'm going to school and learn about all these people that struggle to walk maybe 6 or 10 miles down the road and pay for water and then bring it all the way home, and do that twice a day or something. Doing this project  makes me think about where my water is coming from and how it's being used. I still indulge in hot showers, shamefully perhaps. I am simply more conscious of where my water is going. I'm not particularly good at conserving it, personally.

I believe the more important part of conservation is political change, rather than personal change. There are political resasons for why my house doesn't have metering. It's very difficult for me to judge how much water I'm using. If you're not measuring that, in some ways, it doesn't exist. I would really love to see water use meters go up in Vancouver. But that's a polictical change that requires more people than just me to change.

Personal change is important and can lead to political change on a longer timeline, especially when you pass on those traits of low consumption and living frugally in terms of your footprint to your children. That's very effective because that becomes engrained. But when we're talking about actors that are non-voters, like corporations or larger companies, then I think the pressure and the focus ought to be on political change and not personal change.

What's the larger goal for this project?

Each person that I've dumped water on, they will certainly think about it. Feeling the weight of 20 liters of water is 50 pounds worth of water! People don't forget the crazy Canadian that dumped water on them. So, there's at least 16 people that have been influenced.

We need to rethink our water infrastructure for the 21st century. There are so many cases of leaks, like in New York City and Paris, where it's up to 50 percent. By making it visible, we can get past that "out of sight, out of mind" problem and make it a priority for the 21st century.

How do you justify dumping liters of clean water on people, when the project is all about water conservation?

The amount of water in all the photos that I took was only about 160 liters, which is about half of the 327 liters that one Canadian uses in one day.  Putting it into that perspective, it shows that it's not very much. Plus, these portraits are hourly representations, too, not daily. The numbers add up very quickly in the incomprehensible range, when you're talking about national rates, annually.

Water is a complicated resource. It's very tied to human geography and where people on the earth have chosen to make their home and increase population. There are many historical and geopolitical reasons that are difficult to untangle. There's also the question of whether water is a human right. This project helps raise some of those questions, like how can you justify using this much water in this project? That's a great question, and not one that would normally be asked.

I find that kind of art useful in picking out some of the things that we tend to gloss over, because we have our cultural veil on all the time. We live in a sort of fog, and our fog is very different from the fog of 100 or 200 years ago, and it will be different than the next 100 years. Art is very good at clearing away some of that fog and helping people to see what is going on in their time.