About the 2008 fellow

After several months of weekends photographing life along Highway 99 in California’s Central Valley, Adithya Sambamurthy said he realized he was barely scratching the surface of what travelers during the Depression-era exodus to the West called “California’s Main Street.”

Now that he has won the 2008 Dorothea Lange Fellowship, Sambamurthy, a 28-year-old student pursuing master’s degrees at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism as well as in international and area studies, will be able to take next year to finish his photographic expedition along the blacktop road that stretches from Bakersfield to Redding.

Sambamurthy said he read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath during his move from Florida to school in Berkeley. It was in a documentary photography class in spring 2007 that Sambamurthy thought back to the journeys of the book’s Joad family — and he hit the road to experience and record it for himself.

Encouraged to take a somewhat impressionistic approach with the Highway 99 project, Sambamurthy said he began to consider form and color more as a guide than as a goal. “The idea was to create a mood, to depict a feeling I was searching for as I tried to reconcile the almost mythical road of the book with the road in front of my lens,” he said.

“A lot of it was frankly not very interesting to me at first glance,” he admitted. “It took a lot of driving, often to the same places over and over, to find things that excited me visually. I started taking exits off the highway and stumbled across scenes that took me back to a different place and a different time.”

What continues to surprise him, Sambamurthy said, is the diversity he encounters. While he found traces of the Central Valley’s past, he said he has taken thousands of photos there of today’s “global Dust Bowl migrants,” who include Sikhs from northwest India, Hmong from Southeast Asia, and migrant workers from Mexico and Central America.

A native of Chennai (formerly called Madras), India, Sambamurthy grew up in Dortmund, Germany. His family moved to Houston, Texas, in 1999. He said he has always been interested in photography and belonged to a camera club while attending school in Germany. He also wrote for a monthly publication in high school.

“But I got pretty serious about pursuing a career in photography while shooting for the student newspaper at the University of Texas, Austin,” Sambamurthy recalled, adding that after graduating from UT Austin and before coming to UC Berkeley, he spent about three years working as a newspaper photojournalist.

He said he chose to work on his project with a Canon 5D (digital) camera mainly because it is small, has a full-frame sensor, and behaves more like a 35mm film camera in terms of showing the complete image being photographed, rather the reduced image viewed through most digital cameras. The high resolution 5D also seemed a natural choice because of its sensitivity to light and color, he said.