21 September 2016

Wild West Tech

21 September 2016 - Written by Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

In Wild West Tech, Laura Morton captures the hysteria surrounding an economic boom, exploring the everyday lives of young entrepreneurs and idealists who have hopes and dreams of striking it rich.

© Laura Morton, from the series Wild West Tech

Laura Morton is a freelance photojournalist based in San Francisco. Her personal work focuses on wealth, and the issues that surround it. She has been featured in German GEO, Newsweek Japan, The British Journal of Photography, 6 Mois, National Geographic Traveler France, IO Donna, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and various other publications.

In 2014, she received a grant from the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund to begin working on her latest project, Wild West Tech, which explores the tech industry culture in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.

How did you begin to work on your project, Wild West Tech?

I moved to San Francisco in the summer of 2006. A few years ago it became pretty hard to ignore that tech was taking over the city. All of a sudden and seemingly overnight almost everyone I met was working at a start-up. I became a photojournalist primarily out of an interest in history and I felt this was an important moment in time to document. I’ve read quite a bit about the Gold Rush, which basically turned San Francisco into a city overnight and I see many parallels between that time and now.

I started shooting in the summer of 2014 after receiving a grant from the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund. The grant was wonderful because starting this project took a large amount of research and a lot of time spent getting out there exploring and meeting people before I could figure out what and where to shoot. The grant gave me the time to be able to do that.

How do you gain access to all of these networking parties, hackathons, and co-working spaces?

I gained most of my access just by showing up in person and talking to people. I find it’s easier to explain what you’re doing and to show people that you’re sincere when you’re talking with them face-to-face. The first things I attended and photographed were networking events because I found that was a great way to meet possibly interesting subjects. Sometimes I’d take photos, other times I’d just meet people and connect about photographing them later. I found most of the information on what events to attend through social media. I’d scan Facebook, Eventbrite and the Meetup websites and look for interesting tech related events. I thought it might help me meet possible subjects. Often I’d meet people at a happy hour or networking event who’d tell me “oh, you really need to check out this place” and then I’d just show up the next day and introduce myself. 

© Laura Morton, from the series Wild West Tech

I imagine these people must spend hours in front of their computers all day long - that must have been challenging as a photographer. How do you make your images compelling? How much time do you spend with them?

I’d say the most challenging thing about this project was making interesting pictures about subjects who spend the majority of their time sitting at a laptop. It isn’t the most inherently visual subject and moments can be few and far between. In quite a few situations I had to really push myself to wait, wait, wait and wait some more for moments to reveal themselves. This was definitely one of those projects where many of my favorite photos came after waiting all day, thinking I was getting nothing and then the magic moment that illustrated something I was trying to say or show finally happened.

For example, the photo of the three girls working on a bed was one of those moments that came after several hours of less exciting pictures. I’d met them at a networking happy hour the night before and they invited me to come to their place to photograph them in action. I was there for several hours thinking I was getting nothing interesting and then Danielle got a phone call and sat on the bed while the other girls continued to work on their laptops and a moment just came together that I really love.

© Laura Morton, from the series Wild West Tech

From your series, I was very intrigued about this photograph (just above). The way this woman is completely immersed in this VR world facing your way, but in contrast, everybody else is facing the opposite direction. Can you talk about how you captured this photograph?

This photograph was taken at a happy hour event at a venture capital firm. I’d seen the event pop-up on Facebook and decided to head over and check it out. The firm has a VR accelerator and those companies were showing off their products as people mingled, had drinks and generally enjoyed the happy hour. It was one of those times I felt I wasn’t really getting many compelling photos. About an hour or so into it though a speaker called everyone into the next room to say some words and I noticed this one girl was so immersed in the VR she was trying that she didn’t realize what was going on around her.

I remember getting really excited and thinking “this is perfect!” and trying to back up quietly and quickly to take some frames before she noticed what was going on. It remains one of my favorite photos from the project because I feel it symbolizes how technology can isolate us from other humans. Basically, it was one of those moments where I just got lucky. Much of this project has been about waiting for lucky moments because it’s not obviously visual. I’ve tried to put myself into situations that could lead to something and then I wait and wait and wait until the bitter end in case I get lucky with a storytelling moment.

© Laura Morton, from the series Wild West Tech

What has surprised you the most about the startup community so far?

I’d say the communal nature of the start-up community has been one of the most surprising things. You’d think people would be incredibly competitive with each other, but most of these individuals involved in early-stage start-ups really want to help each other out. It’s cool within the community to work in a co-working space, live in a co-living house and basically surround yourself with other entrepreneurs. They really do create their own little families and support each other.

The other surprising thing is how overwhelmingly optimistic people seem even though most of them fail. One thing about the people I’ve chosen to document is that they’re really early-stage start-ups, often without much funding. I consider these people the “dreamers” of the tech boom. They’re not the people who have sold out to work for large companies where they’d likely be making much more money. Most of them are really passionate about what they’re doing and often remain optimistic even when they fail. In fact, failure is something that’s oddly celebrated in Silicon Valley as long as you can talk about what you learned from it. I think most of these individuals feel they’re part of something special even if their company doesn’t succeed. Interestingly, I’ve found that in some of the accounts of the Gold Rush that I’ve read. Many of the men who failed, but made it home in one piece talked about that time period for the rest of their lives as their great, big adventure. 

© Laura Morton, from the series Wild West Tech

How has your project been received within the startup community in San Francisco?

Pretty much everyone I’ve photographed has been really happy with how the project has turned out. The tech boom has been incredibly polarizing for understandable reasons, but I’ve always been saddened to see people turn complex issues into just black and white, good or bad. By focusing more on what I consider the “dreamers,” the very early-stage start-ups and individuals trying to launch their dream companies, I wanted to show people that not everyone is a rich jerk trying to kick them out of the city. Many of the people participating in this industry boom aren’t rich and are simply trying to create something they feel is important. I wanted to add some depth to the conversation because this boom is about much more than housing activists facing off against Google bosses. Most people have indicated to me that they’re happy to see someone documenting this other side of the boom.

What are your future plans with the project?

The series is definitely ongoing. I plan to continue working on this for years as the boom either continues or turns into a bust. I work best on personal projects when I can really completely dive in, but the reality is I need to make a living. I’ve worked out a system where I work intensely on assignments and paid work and when I save up enough money I step away from that and dive into personal work for a month or so. I’ve taken a break the last few months and plan on beginning to shoot intensely on the project again soon.

My main interest is for these photos to be useful down the road for illustrating this particular moment in history. It’s wonderful the project is so interesting to people now and being published all over the world, but my ultimate goal is for this to be an important piece of work years down the line, helping to understand this point in history. I’m trying to capture the feeling of frenzy, optimism and overall excitement such an economic boom can create.

To learn more about this project, visit Laura's PHmuseum profile.

Written by

Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

Reading time

9 minutes

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