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."
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.
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."
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.
"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."
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."