I Shot a Grim ‘Milk Bath’ Self-Portrait to Capture Water Stress in Cape Town

In drought-stricken Cape Town, we’ve been living with just 50 liters of water per person per day since the beginning of the year. That’s 13.2 gallons. It doesn’t go far when you think about how often you turn on the faucet each day for drinking, cleaning, flushing toilets, showering, washing dishes, and doing laundry.

Like many households, we’ve shut off the water supply to the toilet and religiously collect our ‘grey water’ to refill the cistern instead. It’s an elaborate dance—siphoning drainage from the washing machine, scooping water out of sink basins, standing in a bucket to catch runoff from painfully brief showers… The apartment is littered with buckets, plastic cups, and tubs for collecting and moving water. We shower less. I schedule messy activities and workouts for shower days. We wear our clothes more often. The term ‘droughtfit’ has emerged—when you wear the same clothes until it’s really necessary to wash them.

But we’re managing. It’s amazing how easily we can change behavior when necessary. Hopes are high in Cape Town that we’ll make it through this year without reckoning with Day Zero—the day the city will shut off the municipal water supply. Earlier this year Day Zero was predicted to come in mid-April, but with drastic savings, we should make it to winter (July) when our fate will depend on good rains finally coming.

Still, worrying about water is a serious mental load. I woke up in the middle of the night a few weeks back envisioning this self-portrait: me in our grey water, floating amid the laundry drainage, the leftover shower water, the toothpaste spit, and the hand-wash runoff. It’s a grim take on those “milk bath” photos featured on the photo blogs.

Gross. But still a little beautiful. Stressful and a little hopeful, too.

On a technical note, it took about an hour to put this setup together, and, of course, I scheduled the shoot to coincide with my shower day to avoid wasting any unnecessary water. The camera is mounted on a tripod, balanced precariously on the rim of the bathtub (tripod legs cloned out). A camera-mounted flash bounced off the corner of the ceiling and triggered an off-camera flash bounced off the opposite corner.

Self-timer alone wouldn’t work here, given the complexity, so I used Trigger Trap connected to my iPhone to set up a sound trigger. I set the camera to a two-second self-timer, so the shutter was voice activated, but I had time to close my mouth before the picture. I taped the phone to the camera with some gaffer tape. Amazingly, no electronics fell in the tub!

About the author: Morgan Trimble is a freelance photographer and writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Trimble has written and photographed articles for the Guardian, Wild, Getaway, Sawubona, Travel Africa, SA 4×4, Quest, Popular Mechanics, Africa Geographic, Safari, and others. Her photography has appeared widely in publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Telegraph, Sunday Times, BBC Wildlife, BBC History, National Geographic News, Go!, Juice, and more. Originally from Kansas, Trimble studied physics and biology at MIT and completed an MSc and PhD in conservation ecology in Pretoria, South Africa. You can find more of her work on her website, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. This article was also published here.