Laura Morton, Canon Female Photojournalist of the Year, has made a career from a powerful sense of instinct.
If you become a journalist, every time you do a new story you get to learn about something new and be a scholar on that subject
Some kids want to grow up to be a train driver. Others want to be astronaut or a vet. But it’s rare to have the self-awareness to know exactly what you want to be from a young age AND have the determination to get there. Laura Morton, this year’s winner of Canon’s Female Photojournalist of the Year Award, knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a photojournalist.
“My Dad has this old film camera that I stole in high school, and I was constantly taking pictures of my friends. It’s funny when I look back now, I wasn’t posing anybody, I was always taking sort of documentary-style candid photos. My entire room was covered in pictures and I wanted to be a photojournalist – that was my childhood dream.”
Born in 1984 in Gaithersburg, Maryland – a suburb of Washington DC – Laura grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood and, like her peers, was expected to take a more traditional career path such as medicine or law. She briefly considered pursuing biology as her college major, but a chance encounter changed her direction forever.
“There was one moment in High School where Andrea Bruce, who’s a photojournalist and at the time was a Staff Photographer for the Washington Post, had an assignment to come and photograph one of my classmates.” Although excited to meet a ‘proper’ photographer, Laura didn’t quite get what she expected, “I thought it would be some big burly man, and in walks this young – she was in her twenties at the time – feminine, very sweet, young woman. And she was SO nice, even though I know I was probably annoying and she was trying to do her work, all my friends were like “Laura really wants to be a photojournalist!” and she talked to me all about it. And that was the first time I saw myself possibly pursuing that career path.”
Andrea Bruce has since gone on to be a multiple award-winning documentary photographer, who focuses on the aftermath of wars, and not only has she had a lasting influence on Laura, but today they are peers.
The meeting led to Laura applying for a job as a photographer on the University of North Carolina newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel (a ‘Tar Heel’ being the nickname for an inhabitant of North Carolina) – and a last-minute about-turn from a major in Biology to one in Journalism and Political Science. It seems like something of an epiphany: “I couldn’t really be a scientist. You spend so much time focused for years on one specific thing and my interests are just way broader than that,” she explains. “If you become a journalist, every time you do a new story you get to learn about something new and be a scholar on that subject – even though it might be a short daily assignment or an assignment that lasts a couple of weeks. I was really interested in that.”
An internship at the Seattle Times in her junior year proved formative to the work she produces today, and this is largely down to their Staff Photographer, Alan Berner. Alan guided many young photographers through the early stages of their career. “He taught me how to see the humour in everyday life, which I think I still use a lot in my work today, all these years later.”
I remember driving into San Francisco over the Bay Bridge… and I was like ‘Yep, I think I’m never going to want to leave here.'
Often photojournalism is, in Laura’s words, “focused on hard news – the wars, death and destruction”, but her work is wry, with one eye firmly on the absurd, which is Alan’s legacy. “It doesn’t have to be just tragedy and sadness. I want people to remember my photos, so I look for quirky little moments all the time and I think Alan really taught me that. And that was a massive influence early on in my career.”
So, it was with her gut instinct and these experiences that Laura took off to her final internship with the San Francisco Chronicle – a place she had never been before – and where she continues to find subjects to this day. ‘I thought I’d be there for three months, I drove across the country by myself I remember driving into San Francisco over the Bay Bridge, and I could see the Coit Tower and the hills and the fog rolling in and I was like “Yep, I think I’m never going to want to leave here.’”
And she hasn’t. San Francisco has given Laura an almost endless amount of material and inadvertently put her in the eye of a technology storm. But it requires patience and – critically – funding. A Magnum Foundation Emergency Grant allowed her to produce her seminal work, ‘Wild West Tech’, which examines the lives of those living and breathing the San Francisco tech start-up world. The series is funny and often discomforting. It’s easy to see these young ambitious techies as living in a bubble, a world away from the humdrum of normal life, but it also holds a mirror up to the everyday technology usage of us all. “I think some of those photos in twenty years are going to be really interesting. I mean everyone in my photos practically is sitting at a screen or looking at their phone.”
No image is accidental but discovering them is haphazard. “These people in the start-up world, it’s not that they’re flaky, they literally don’t know what’s happening day-to-day, so I have to be available to them. They text me and say, “Oh we’re home and working after our meeting” and I jump in the car and off I go.”
It’s an immersive life. Although she lives and works in San Francisco, her husband, friends and family are all still in Washington DC. “I like to really blend into the scene and when I’m really working, I forget that I haven’t seen my friends in several weeks, because I’m so in the lives of the people that I’m documenting that I have to remember to step back – “oh wait, I haven’t actually hung out with someone I wasn't actually taking pictures of in like three weeks, maybe I should give my friend a call” and that’s just a weird work/life balance thing.”
For the foreseeable future, Laura will stay in San Francisco. The €8,000 grant she has received through the Canon Female Photojournalist of the Year Award will be funding her next project “University Avenue”, a sequel to Wild West Tech. It’s centred around income equality and the contrasts between Palo Alto – home to Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and Larry Page – and East Palo Alto, an area, that although beginning to benefit from its wealthy neighbours, still has 18% of its population living under the poverty line. “One street that starts at Stanford university, goes through downtown Palo Alto, crosses the highway and goes to the heart of East Palo Alto. Where it ends, you have a view of the Facebook campus. So, trying to document lives and stories along this one street shows how this one community can be left behind, while surrounded by all this wealth.”
One thing is absolute. Laura tells important stories that will endure. The images from Wild West Tech will no doubt be repeatedly referenced in years to come, but ‘Zeitgeist’ is overused and doesn’t remotely do her work justice. This unique record of the world of tech will mean different things to different people in years to come – misty eyed sentimentality, eccentricity, danger, fun. With a few future billionaires thrown in for good measure.
Does this mean that Dad is convinced now?
“Even early on with some career success he was like “maybe you should like go to Law School, this is not very practical”, which is funny because all my friends who went to law school graduated in 2009 at the height of the financial crash and weren’t able to get jobs and have all these loans.
So, hey Dad, at least I’m not saddled in debt!”
Laura Morton received the Canon Female Photojournalist of the Year Award at this year’s Visa Pour l’Image, international festival of photojournalism in Perpignon, France. To see more of her work, including the ‘Wild West Tech’ series, visit www.lauramortonphoto.com