Marcus Yam: From Aspiring Astronaut to a Pulitzer Prize in Photography

Marcus Yam flying on an Afghan Air Force UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter on a resupply mission in Gardez, Afghanistan, on May 9, 2021. Exactly a year later, he earned a Pulitzer for his coverage of the fall of Afghanistan. Photo by Nabih Bulos of the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles Times roving foreign correspondent and photojournalist Marcus Yam was recently awarded the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Photography “for raw and urgent images of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan that capture the human cost of the historic change in the country.”

PetaPixel spoke with Yam to learn about his journey from growing up in Malaysia and studying aerospace engineering to becoming one of the world’s top conflict photographers with a Pulitzer Prize to his name.

Marcus Yam takes a picture around the Afghan Air Force UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after a resupply mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on May 9, 2021. Photo by Nabih Bulos of the Los Angeles Times. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

Warning: This article contains graphic photos that viewers may find disturbing.

Documenting the Fall of Afghanistan

When the United States announced that it would be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Yam wanted to be there to record what he felt was going to be an uneasy transfer of power. Yam landed in Afghanistan on August 14, 2021, as the Taliban was advancing on the capital Kabul on the double. The very next day, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, to the surprise of the U.S. and the world.

Yam stayed on in Afghanistan from August to October even after most western news media had departed. He wished to record the brutality and suffering perpetrated on the citizens after 20 years of living in relative safety with the presence of American troops.

A military transport plane flies over relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family as they gather around an incinerated husk of a vehicle destroyed by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan. In August, life came to a standstill as the Taliban offensive reached the gates of the Afghan capital, sending it into a panic. President Ashraf Ghani escaped; American-backed Afghan forces pulled back. The Taliban swiftly took over a nation that had changed much since it first ruled two decades ago. Jarring, violent scenes followed, marking a tragic coda to a messy and controversial 20-year occupation. The U.S. was ending its longest war. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

As chaos quickly spread throughout Afghanistan, several editors at the Los Angeles Times asked Executive Director of Photography Calvin Hom to get Yam out of Afghanistan for his own safety. But Yam managed to convince his DOP that he should be allowed to stay and continue his visual and written reporting.

“I told them that we have a responsibility to stay with this story, and I wanted to see it through,” Yam tells PetaPixel. “We have a unique perspective, and we should pursue it.

“When the Taliban was encircling Kabul, and other news organizations were pulling their journalists out, I had a decision to make. I’m thankful I have very trusting editors who allow us to follow our instincts on the ground.

“Of course, it was a calculated risk. I was not fearless. I was amongst just a handful of westerners that remained behind. I had organized exit plans every day just in case. And even after my run-in with the Taliban [detailed below], I pleaded to my editors to stay and keep working. I went back to work the next day or two with a terrible headache and swollen forehead.”

A child cries as a man carries a bloodied child on a road leading to Kabul’s airport. Others help a wounded woman on the ground in a scene of chaos as the Taliban secured its grip on the capital while tens of thousands of Afghans raced to the airport, hoping to be evacuated on U.S. military transport planes. Taliban fighters used gunfire, whips, sticks, and sharp objects to violently rebuff thousands of Afghans on Aug. 17, 2021. At least a half dozen were wounded, including the woman and child. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
Taliban fighters pray next to young Afghans outside a local mosque for evening prayers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 26, 2021. In its nearly two-decade fight with the U.S., the Taliban worked at every turn to undermine the Afghan government, deriding its leaders as corrupt stooges whose forces could never protect citizens from the group’s ferocious attacks. But the Taliban is now in charge, and with power comes a daunting challenge: convincing Afghans — many of them with bitter memories of the last time the fundamentalist group ran the country — that it can govern and police as well as it can fight. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

Sucker-Punched by the Taliban

In August 2021, Yam was covering a protest when “At some point, I moved to take a picture of a scuffle,” he writes in an account published in the Times. “Someone tugged on my camera strap, and I felt the kinetic-energy connection of a fist to the side of my head. A Taliban fighter had sucker-punched me. He was a tall, burly man who started screaming in Dari, the local language, pointing at our cameras.”

Minibus passengers look on as Taliban soldiers patrol a busy street in downtown Kabul on Aug. 26, 2021. Taliban fighters are the enforcers of Afghanistan’s new law and order — young men eager to escape the mundane business of governing and policing, who are used to the intensity of battle but also the simplicity of life in the rural provinces. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

Fortunately, a second Taliban fighter present, who also earlier attacked Yam, could speak English and understood when the photographer explained that he was a protected journalist.

“He apologized profusely for our troubles, but not for beating us,” Yam writes. “They became solicitous: We were each brought a bottle of cold water and a can of Monster Energy drink, a favorite of the U.S. soldiers who controlled the city until a few days ago.

“[The second fighter] asked us: ‘Please, could you tell me who hit you? We will capture him and punish him.’ I looked at my colleague in disbelief. It was a surreal scene.”

Family members and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gather to examine the wreckage caused by a hellfire missile launched from a U.S. drone that targeted a vehicle parked inside a residential compound in the Khwaja Burgha neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021. The U.S. military says that the airstrike was meant to target ISIS-K militants and retaliate for an airport bombing carried out by the terror group. Instead, it took the lives of 10 civilians – members of Emal Ahmadi’s family, including seven children. The U.S. would eventually call the strike a “tragic mistake.” Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

From Afghanistan to Ukraine

After Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, Marcus traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine, in March to cover the conflict amid military bombardments. Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, whom Yam knew well, was killed along with two others covering the war.

“It could be any one of us,” says Yam. “I didn’t for a second think it could not be me. That’s why working in conflict zones is difficult.”

Yam finds the photography of the war in Ukraine hard to describe.

“It’s unpredictable. It’s also heartbreaking. But I am also very loved by the humanity on full display in this war,” he adds. “War is war. It is horrific, and it is senseless.”

On that first trip to Ukraine, Yam had to step away from the conflict for health reasons.

“Not injured by the war, but the grueling work pace took a toll on my body,” he explains. “I eventually got really sick, and my over-the-counter medication wasn’t working. My body just gave up.”

It takes quite a bit to stop Yam in his work, as the photojournalist seems to have it in his blood to continue telling a story even when he is exiting a scene. In October 2021, when Yam was finally leaving Afghanistan on a humanitarian evacuation flight from Kabul to Doha, Qatar, the flight was still taxing on the runway when they heard the news that a local mosque had been bombed. At that moment, Yam briefly considered asking the pilot to let him off the plane so he could go back to work.

From Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Buffalo, New York

Yam was born in Malaysia, making him the first Malaysian-born photojournalist (and sixth Los Angeles Times journalist) to win a Pulitzer for photography. He was also in his first year as a foreign correspondent when he won journalism’s top honor, making it an even more remarkable achievement.

“I was not involved in photography in Malaysia,” says Yam. “Looking back, my focus and passion in the things I do in life have always been singular. I oftentimes don’t allow room for much more. As the phrase goes from my favorite movie, Gattaca, ‘You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it: I never saved anything for the swim back.’

Mourners at a mass funeral look up and weep as the roar of jet engines drown out their wails in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021. Fighter jets circled the hilltop cemetery where members of the Ahmadi family were burying 10 of their own – seven of them children – all victims of a U.S. drone strike. A full day before the U.S. military withdrawal approached its conclusion, death continued to haunt the war-torn country. The airstrike came in the wake of an airport bombing on Aug. 26 carried out by ISIS-K militants. The United States military claimed initially that it was targeting an alleged Islamic extremist who posed the threat of carrying out a similar attack. A month later, it reversed its position, but the Pentagon decided no American troops would be punished. Left to grieve and wonder, Emal Ahmadi could not understand how it could be that a family could die and no one be held accountable. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

Yam grew up in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where he nearly dropped out of high school as he was spending most of his waking hours playing video games and dreaming of becoming a professional esports gamer.

But he soon realized his adulthood would be difficult, got back into studies, and at age 19, was accepted at the University of Buffalo, New York, from where he holds a degree in aerospace engineering. He had picked the major with aspirations of one day becoming an astronaut.

After the stroke of midnight, Taliban fighters from the Fateh Zwak unit storm into Hamid Karzai International Airport, while wearing American-made uniforms and brandishing American M4 and M16 rifles and riding U.S. pickup trucks on Aug. 31, 2021. For two weeks, Kabul’s airport was the last tether to America’s control in Afghanistan, its runways the site of a frantic airlift that spirited more than 120,000 people out of the country. But there was no more of that frenzied activity on the deadline of the U.S. withdrawal, hours after the last U.S. military transport plane rumbled into the night sky, closing the chapter on a 20-year U.S. intervention that ended the way it began: with the Taliban in control of Afghanistan. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

“I Fell into Photography Because I Was Lazy”

“Towards the end of my time in university [of Buffalo], I was a student in need of English credits in order to graduate, and the college newspaper offered said credits in exchange for writing or photography services,” explains Yam. “Clearly, I thought I chose the path of least resistance. So, I bought my first real camera.

“I fell into photography because I was lazy.”

Journalists from the Etilaat Roz newspaper, Nemat Naqdi, 28, left and Taqi Daryabi, 22, undress to show their wounds caused by beatings from Taliban fighters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 8, 2021. The two were tortured while in custody after being arrested for filming a rally for women’s rights. The demonstrations came just one day after the Taliban revealed an all-male interim government made up of stalwarts with zero representation for women or ethnic minority groups – their promise of a more tolerant rule clearly broken. “They didn’t let me resist,” Daryabi said of the brutality he and his colleague suffered. He said he was shoved to the ground, tortured and beaten unconscious. He was taken to a yard and water was poured on him. He was still there when they brought Naqdi. “We were shouting that we are journalists. But they didn’t care,” Naqdi said. “I thought they were going to kill me…They kept on ridiculing us, asking if we were filming them.” Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

John Davis, then Design Director at the Buffalo News, offered him a photo internship during his student days. Yam initially laughed at the idea. Davis told him that he had something special, and if he did not like it, he could go back to aerospace engineering.

“I could not say no to that challenge,” Yam wrote in an Instagram post in 2017. “I am completely indebted to folks like him for helping [me] grow into the photographer I am right now.”

John Davis, then Design Director at the Buffalo News with Marcus Yam

“After my first internship at The Buffalo News, I was at a loss. I had made the biggest decision in my life, and yet I didn’t have a roadmap to guide me,” says Yam. “So, I pulled up my sleeves and went to work. I met teachers like Loret Steinberg, a professor at RIT. I worked for legendary editors like Michel du Cille and Michele McNally, who were not afraid to tell me that I needed a lot more work on myself and my voice in order to succeed.

“It was not enough that you knew how to take a good picture. They taught me that you needed to know why you were making pictures and what kind of meaning you seek from it.”

Yam has been in the photojournalism business for more than a decade, but he really began his professional career in New York when he caught a big break with a prestigious internship with The New York Times.

“My internships at the Washington Post and The New York Times led to what most consider a lucrative freelance career in NYC. I worked every day. I lived in one of the biggest cities in America. And I was young and hungry. At some point, McNally asked me if I knew why I wanted to become a photographer. She could see I had not answered that existential question for myself.

“That conversation sent me on a quest. So, I left New York and took a position at The Seattle Times. Why? I wanted to grow… After three years in NYC, I realized [I] was chasing success and a paycheck, but I was hitting a plateau in terms of challenging myself.”

Marcus Yam standing in the rubble of Mosul, Iraq, years after the war, in Dec 2021. Photo by Nabih Bulos of the Los Angeles Times.

In Seattle, Yam ended up being with a team of journalists who were awarded a Pulitzer in 2015 for their coverage of a deadly 2014 landslide in Oso, Washington.

The work was more community journalism oriented, and Yam even dabbled in conceptual work involving a series of triple exposures to illustrate an essay about Seattle being a global city. He worked in the rain a lot. He was miserable not because of the weather but because he didn’t know how to work in the rain. So, he fixed that and was ready for the next challenge.

Photographer Marcus Yam. Photo by Noah Berger.

“Eventually, I outgrew my role in Seattle,” says the photojournalist. “It had only been a year or so into my job. Right around the same time, I met Calvin Hom, the Director of Photography at the Los Angeles Times, and he recruited me to come and work for him. The rest is history. I have been here since, and come this October, for as long as I am still employed, I’ll mark eight years with this fantastic institution.”

Palestinian protesters help carry away shot comrades while volunteer medical units are overwhelmed by casualties during a chaotic confrontation with Israeli troops along Gaza’s border on May 14, 2018. Over six weeks leading up to that day, tens of thousands of Palestinians converged along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip for a massive wave of protests called the Great March of Return. The protesters demand the right of Palestinians to reclaim ancestral homes in Israel, marking a 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation and mass Palestinian displacement that was further heightened by the Trump administration’s controversial decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
Ibraheem Mohammed Al-Tubassi, father, top, and other family members bid farewell to Yazan Ibraheem Mohammed Al-Tubassi, 23, at the Shifa Hospital morgue after he was shot in the eye by Israeli forces during the Great March of Return in Gaza City, on May 14, 2018. The latest deaths came as Palestinians observed what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe, of their mass displacement 70 years ago during hostilities surrounding the creation of Israel. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
Baha Abu Ayash cries after being told by relatives that his leg requires amputation at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, on May 19, 2018. Baha Abu Ayash was shot in the leg but now suffers from gangrene due to the wounds attained from protests during the Great March of Return. The wounded are not the only ones who will suffer. Entire families depend on the injured, most of them young men in their 20s and early 30s. Many joined the protests because they already had lost hope of finding a job, getting married, or building a future in this deeply impoverished enclave of 2 million people wedged between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
A Palestinian man carries a fellow protester after he was shot in the foot during a border protest east of the Gaza City, on May 11, 2018. Even though the toll of violence during the two months of protests along the Gaza Strip‚ border with Israel is most often measured in deaths, the reality is that more than 14,000 have been wounded ‚ 3,700 of them took bullets ‚according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza. Nearly 60{5b4d37f3b561c14bd186647c61229400cd4722d6fb37730c64ddff077a6b66c6} of those gunshot casualties were hit in the legs ‚ a strategy employed by the Israeli military to limit killings. In most cases, the patients will be left with life-long disabilities. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
California wildfire season is now all-year-around. 2017 was the most devastating wildfire season on record, which saw multiple wildfires burning across the state, according to CAL FIRE. The wildfires have burned more than 1.5 million acres of land across the Golden State, including five of the 20 most destructive wildland-urban interface fires in the state’s 85-year-old list of large wildfires. Thousands of homes were destroyed, countless families were forced to rebuild and dozens of people have died. In a state with 39 million residents, firefighters are tackling faster-moving and more destructive wildfires as drought conditions continue into the 7th year.
A family packs up and evacuates as the Thomas fire moves closer to their home in Ventura, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2017. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
Firefighters mop up after stopping the forward progress of Castlewood Fire in Fullerton, Calif., on Oct. 30, 2019. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

Yam has also documented deadly clashes in the Gaza Strip, covered the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attacks in 2015, the deadly landslide in Oso, Washington, and many other critical events for which he has received numerous awards.

Los Angeles County firefighter Captain Victor Correa, Battalion 13, helps put out a hotspot in a neighborhood razed by the Woolsey fire on Harvester Road in Malibu, Calif., on Nov. 12, 2018. The Woolsey fire is proving to be the worse ever to strike the upscale coastal community. At least 670 structures were destroyed inside the Malibu city limits, including more than 400 single-family homes with an estimated market value of at least $1.6 billion, according to an analysis of aerial imagery and property records. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
Migrant mothers holding their children watch as others disembark from the truck that transported them through the cold plateau, known as El Páramo de Berlín – the most dangerous part of the Andes to get to the other side, on the outskirts of Bucaramanga, Colombia. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
News cameras often focus on the destruction and death from a wildfire but overlook those who survive or are displaced. In the aftermath of the “unprecedented” monster of a wildfire — 85 dead, more than 13,900 homes were destroyed and Paradise was decimated. Many of the displaced – more than 50,000 people – seek shelter at a Walmart parking lot in Chico, Calif. and brace the winter temperatures in their vehicles, and await their fate. Some try to return to recover items or check on their homes and some try to figure out a future after Paradise.
Ryan Spainhower embraces his wife, Kimberly Spainhower after he recovers a coin that he and his wife made during their honeymoon in 2004, from the debris of his home that was destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 18, 2018. The coin reads: “KIM & RYAN SOULMATES 4EVER.” Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
From left, Johnny Hardin, 15, Madeline Hardin, 13, Donita Hardin and Erik Hardin, 15 months old, get ready to sleep in their car to stay warm in the freezing cold after getting displaced by the Campfire, at the Walmart parking lot in Chico, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2018. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

Camera Gear and Traveling Light

Yam shoots with a Sony a9 II full-frame mirrorless camera with the Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS, a zoom lens he leaves on his camera body all the time. This arrangement allows him to travel light in the field. He does pack two more small lenses for reserve as well.

He mainly shoots available light but also carries a tiny flash from Hong Kong-based LightPix Labs FlashQ system called the X20, an item he discovered on PetaPixel.

Foreign correspondent and photographer Marcus Yam during the coverage of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in Azerbaijan. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times
Marcus Yam interacts with the fishermen on a 24-hour fishing trip off the coast of Gaza. Photo by Nabih Bulos of the Los Angeles Times.

Yam shoots both RAW as well as JPEG, and his favorite photo software for culling is what most photojournalists use: Photo Mechanic.

Colombian Police guarding the Colombia-Venezuela border stand guard as Venezuelan migrants rush to cross the border from San Antonio del Táchira in Venezuela to Colombia through “trochas,” shortcut illegal paths, often controlled by the “colectivos,” an armed paramilitary organization supporting the Nicolás Maduro and the Bolivarian government, near the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, in Cúcuta, Colombia. Photo by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times

At the time of this writing, Yam has once again traveled from Los Angeles to Ukraine to take viewers to the frontlines of the ongoing conflict and struggle.

You can see more of Marcus Yam’s work on his website and Instagram, and all 15 photos of his Pulitzer-winning portfolio can be found on the prize’s website.

About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.

Image credits: All photos courtesy Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times.

Kenneth Proto

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