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In the shadow of Silicon Valley: Laura Morton on shooting the two faces of the tech dream

2018 Canon Female Photojournalist Award winner Laura Morton's University Avenue project focuses on two neighbouring communities in California's Bay Area. Initially, she thought it would focus on inequality, but she discovered there was more that united her subjects than separated them. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/320 sec, f/9 and ISO100. © Laura Morton

Palo Alto and East Palo Alto are two US cities with almost identical names, situated next to each other in California's Bay Area. But they are separated by a stark wealth gap. According to government statistics, per capita income is $82,576 in Palo Alto but $22,068 in East Palo Alto. 2018 Canon Female Photojournalist Award winner Laura Morton's project, University Avenue, takes its name from a street that runs through both cities.

At the outset, Laura thought inequality would be the focus of this project, but she noticed more similarities than she expected between the area that Mark Zuckerberg calls home and its less prosperous neighbour. Instead, University Avenue became about how we live our lives in the broadest sense – how we work, how we play, how we pray, how we build community.

"Both cities are being squeezed, in different ways, by the tech giants around them," she says. "I realised it would be more interesting to photograph similar slices of daily life that transcend economic and cultural differences, to focus on how people are the same."

Three women talk at a garage sale in front of a large house. Photo by Laura Morton.
The inhabitants of Palo Alto are generally much wealthier than their eastern neighbours, but not everyone in Palo Alto is a billionaire. Here, Anne Butler (centre) and her friend Alice Jacob (left) team up to host a garage sale at Anne's house in the Crescent Park neighbourhood, in May 2019. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/5.6 and ISO160. © Laura Morton
A woman and her daughter look at clothes at a garage sale in the garden of a smaller home. Photo by Laura Morton.
While there is poverty in East Palo Alto, most residents are middle or lower-middle class. Here, Sandra Martinez shops at a garage sale with her daughter at the home of the Jimenez family, in June 2019. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/4.5 and ISO125. © Laura Morton

2018 Canon Female Photojournalist Award winner

San Francisco based documentary photographer Laura had immersed herself in Palo Alto's tech scene when shooting the Magnum Foundation funded Wild West Tech, which chronicled the young people flocking to Silicon Valley to live and breathe the tech dream – a modern-day gold rush.

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After winning the 2018 Canon Female Photojournalist Award at Visa pour l'Image in Perpignan, France, Laura was able to pursue this new, though related, project. The award, given annually to "an outstanding female photographer in recognition of her contribution to photojournalism", comes with an €8,000 grant to support a project, exhibited at the following year's Visa pour l'Image festival.

Winning the grant gave Laura financial freedom. "The award allowed me to take a step away from the daily assignments I'd normally need to do to pay my bills. Time to work is a gift for a documentary photographer. Also, while I live in the area, Palo Alto is still a 75-mile round trip from my home in San Francisco, so the award money helped pay for gas – I put more than 5,000 miles on my car working on this!"

In Laura's kitbag was the Canon EOS R, with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens. "I generally like to work with one camera and a fixed 35mm lens. I chose the EOS R mainly because of its small size. It doesn't look like a professional camera, and that helps put people at ease," she explains. "Also, I did quite a bit of walking back and forth between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, so having a small kit was great for saving my back."

Three cheerleaders do high kicks in the middle of a street. Photo by Laura Morton.
The Stanford Cheerleading Squad rehearses on University Avenue before performing during the 97th annual May Fete Parade. Shooting this major event in Palo Alto, and the Cinco de Mayo celebrations in East Palo Alto, inspired Laura to shoot her images in pairs. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © Laura Morton
Four dancers in traditional Mexican dress perform in the middle of a street. Photo by Laura Morton.
Dancers perform at the 34th annual Cinco de Mayo Parade in East Palo Alto. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO160. © Laura Morton

Laura started work on the project last winter. Normally she'd begin by reading around the topic, but there wasn't a huge amount of literature out there. "I spent a lot of time walking around, exploring both cities and talking to people. Going to community events as well as places where people who are invested in the community would gather, such as city council meetings and church, was really helpful. If possible, I like to work by going into a place with as much background research as I can, but then letting the people I meet guide me to the story.

"The benefit of working with the backing of a grant is that you can take your time, research, and change direction if you feel it is necessary. I much prefer to work this way because it allows for deeper and more subtle stories to develop," Laura says.

Six siblings pose for a portrait against a bare wall in a sparsely-furnished room. Photo by Anush Babajanyan.

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"When talking to people from outside East Palo Alto, I heard quite a few responses along the lines of ‘Oh, it's good East Palo Alto is gentrifying now'. Those responses reminded me that I should be focusing on showing the place as the unique community it is, socially and culturally.

"I felt it was very important not to make this a story about rich versus poor, and particularly not to depict East Palo Alto as just a poor town," she adds. "Yes, there is poverty in East Palo Alto, but most residents are middle and lower-middle class families." Similarly, not everyone in Palo Alto is a billionaire, "particularly seniors who've been there for a long time. If they own a home they might be wealthy on paper, but selling their home would mean leaving their communities. The same is true in East Palo Alto, where the estimated median home value is approaching a million dollars."

It was several months before Laura actually started shooting. "We had one of the rainiest winter and spring seasons in Northern Californian history and it rained pretty much every day until May," she remembers. "When the rain finally stopped, it was as if everyone in both towns came out of hibernation and the streets were alive again. That's when things really got rolling."

Five congregants with red neckties stand holding hands at church. Photo by Laura Morton.
Laura had already taken the East Palo Alto church shot (right) and was looking for a mirror image when she saw the congregants at First United Methodist Church joining hands in prayer. The red neckties mirror the shawl over the woman's knees in the East Palo Alto shot. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/4.0 and ISO6400. © Laura Morton
Congregants stand holding hands at church – one woman sits with a red shawl across her knees. Photo by Laura Morton.
Congregants participating in Sunday service at St John Missionary Baptist Church in East Palo Alto. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Laura Morton

Prompted by a weekend spent shooting Palo Alto's May Fete Parade on Saturday and East Palo Alto's Cinco de Mayo Parade, Laura made the decision early on to exhibit the pictures at Visa 2019 as pairs. This influenced how she selected locations, people and moments to capture, editing as she went along.

"I was looking for a mirror match to every photograph," she says. "When I got a photo I liked from one city, I'd print it out and put it on my wall at home so it was in my head to search for in the other city. For example, I had a photograph from church in East Palo Alto that I liked, and when I went to the Palo Alto church I had that photo in my mind. I saw a group standing in the same way, holding their hands in a semi-circle in prayer, even with the similar touches of red in their clothing, so I ran over and took the photo."

The challenge was finding visually interesting situations to photograph. "These are not the most dramatic-looking places, and this is essentially a story about daily life in suburban towns. I tend to pick projects that are not visually obvious, overcoming this by waiting for moments and photographs to come together." This entailed a fair amount of street photography, which was an interesting experience for someone who says she is, by nature, shy. "I'm much more comfortable when I've talked my way into an intimate situation than out on the street. It was necessary for this project, though, and I found myself getting more comfortable with it."

Laura is now working on the next stage of Wild West Tech, looking at cryptocurrency and robotics start-ups, but University Avenue is far from over. "There are quite a few photos I love that I haven't found mirrors for yet, even though I know they're out there," she says. "I like to work on long-term projects in chapters and immerse myself for a few months, complete one chapter and then take a breather. When I come back, I usually see things with fresh eyes."

Yazar Rachel Segal Hamilton


See Laura's University Avenue exhibition at the Canon stand at Visa pour l'Image 2019, 2-7 September 2019.

Laura Morton’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Portrait of Laura Morton.

Cameras

Canon EOS R

A full-frame 30.3-megapixel sensor with impressive detail, ISO performance and Dual Pixel CMOS AF. "I chose the EOS R mainly because of its small size. It doesn't look like a professional camera, and that helps put people at ease," explains Laura.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Made for those who demand the very highest standards in image quality, the EOS 5D Mark IV’s 30.4-megapixel sensor delivers images that are packed with detail, even in the brightest highlights and darkest shadows.

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