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


Marcus Yam flying on an Afghan Air Power UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter on a resupply mission in Gardez, Afghanistan, on Might 9, 2021. Precisely a yr later, he earned a Pulitzer for his protection of the autumn of Afghanistan. Photograph by Nabih Bulos of the Los Angeles Instances.

Los Angeles Instances roving international correspondent and photojournalist Marcus Yam was lately awarded the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking Information Pictures “for uncooked and pressing pictures of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan that seize the human price of the historic change within the nation.”

PetaPixel spoke with Yam to study his journey from rising up in Malaysia and finding out aerospace engineering to turning into one of many world’s high battle photographers with a Pulitzer Prize to his title.

Marcus Yam takes an image across the Afghan Air Power UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after a resupply mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Might 9, 2021. Photograph by Nabih Bulos of the Los Angeles Instances. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

Warning: This text comprises graphic images that viewers might discover disturbing.

Documenting the Fall of Afghanistan

When america introduced that it will be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Yam needed to be there to file what he felt was going to be an uneasy switch of energy. Yam landed in Afghanistan on August 14, 2021, because the Taliban was advancing on the capital Kabul on the double. The very subsequent day, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, to the shock of the U.S. and the world.

Yam stayed on in Afghanistan from August to October even after most western information media had departed. He wished to file the brutality and struggling perpetrated on the residents after 20 years of residing in relative security with the presence of American troops.

A army transport airplane flies over kinfolk and neighbors of the Ahmadi household as they collect round an incinerated husk of a automobile destroyed by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan. In August, life got here to a standstill because the Taliban offensive reached the gates of the Afghan capital, sending it right into a panic. President Ashraf Ghani escaped; American-backed Afghan forces pulled again. The Taliban swiftly took over a nation that had modified a lot because it first dominated twenty years in the past. Jarring, violent scenes adopted, marking a tragic coda to a messy and controversial 20-year occupation. The U.S. was ending its longest struggle. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

As chaos rapidly unfold all through Afghanistan, a number of editors on the Los Angeles Instances requested Government Director of Pictures Calvin Hom to get Yam out of Afghanistan for his personal security. However Yam managed to persuade his DOP that he needs to be allowed to remain and proceed his visible and written reporting.

“I advised them that we’ve a duty to stick with this story, and I needed to see it by,” Yam tells PetaPixel. “We’ve got a novel perspective, and we must always pursue it.

“When the Taliban was encircling Kabul, and different information organizations had been pulling their journalists out, I had a choice to make. I’m grateful I’ve very trusting editors who permit us to observe our instincts on the bottom.

“In fact, it was a calculated threat. I used to be not fearless. I used to be amongst only a handful of westerners that remained behind. I had organized exit plans day-after-day simply in case. And even after my run-in with the Taliban [detailed below], I pleaded to my editors to remain and preserve working. I went again to work the following day or two with a horrible headache and swollen brow.”

A baby cries as a person carries a bloodied youngster on a street resulting in Kabul’s airport. Others assist a wounded lady on the bottom in a scene of chaos because the Taliban secured its grip on the capital whereas tens of 1000’s of Afghans raced to the airport, hoping to be evacuated on U.S. army transport planes. Taliban fighters used gunfire, whips, sticks, and sharp objects to violently rebuff 1000’s of Afghans on Aug. 17, 2021. At the least a half dozen had been wounded, together with the lady and youngster. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
Taliban fighters pray subsequent to younger Afghans exterior an area mosque for night prayers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 26, 2021. In its practically two-decade struggle with the U.S., the Taliban labored at each flip to undermine the Afghan authorities, deriding its leaders as corrupt stooges whose forces may by no means defend residents from the group’s ferocious assaults. However the Taliban is now in cost, and with energy comes a frightening problem: convincing Afghans — a lot of them with bitter recollections of the final time the fundamentalist group ran the nation — that it will possibly govern and police in addition to it will possibly struggle. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

Sucker-Punched by the Taliban

In August 2021, Yam was protecting a protest when “Sooner or later, I moved to take an image of a scuffle,” he writes in an account revealed within the Instances. “Somebody tugged on my digital camera strap, and I felt the kinetic-energy connection of a fist to the aspect of my head. A Taliban fighter had sucker-punched me. He was a tall, burly man who began screaming in Dari, the native language, pointing at our cameras.”

Minibus passengers look on as Taliban troopers patrol a busy road in downtown Kabul on Aug. 26, 2021. Taliban fighters are the enforcers of Afghanistan’s new regulation and order — younger males keen to flee the mundane enterprise of governing and policing, who’re used to the depth of battle but in addition the simplicity of life within the rural provinces. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

Luckily, a second Taliban fighter current, who additionally earlier attacked Yam, may communicate English and understood when the photographer defined that he was a protected journalist.

“He apologized profusely for our troubles, however not for beating us,” Yam writes. “They grew to become solicitous: We had been every introduced a bottle of chilly water and a can of Monster Power drink, a favourite of the U.S. troopers who managed town till just a few days in the past.

“[The second fighter] requested us: ‘Please, may you inform me who hit you? We are going to seize him and punish him.’ I checked out my colleague in disbelief. It was a surreal scene.”

Members of the family and neighbors of the Ahmadi household collect to look at the wreckage brought on by a hellfire missile launched from a U.S. drone that focused a automobile parked inside a residential compound within the Khwaja Burgha neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021. The U.S. army says that the airstrike was meant to focus on ISIS-Ok militants and retaliate for an airport bombing carried out by the fear group. As an alternative, it took the lives of 10 civilians – members of Emal Ahmadi’s household, together with seven kids. The U.S. would finally name the strike a “tragic mistake.” Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

From Afghanistan to Ukraine

After Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, Marcus traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine, in March to cowl the battle amid army bombardments. Fox Information cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, whom Yam knew effectively, was killed together with two others protecting the struggle.

“It could possibly be any considered one of us,” says Yam. “I didn’t for a second assume it couldn’t be me. That’s why working in battle zones is tough.”

Yam finds the images of the struggle in Ukraine arduous to explain.

“It’s unpredictable. It’s additionally heartbreaking. However I’m additionally very cherished by the humanity on full show on this struggle,” he provides. “Conflict is struggle. It’s horrific, and it’s mindless.”

On that first journey to Ukraine, Yam needed to step away from the battle for well being causes.

“Not injured by the struggle, however the grueling work tempo took a toll on my physique,” he explains. “I finally obtained actually sick, and my over-the-counter remedy wasn’t working. My physique simply gave up.”

It takes fairly a bit to cease Yam in his work, because the photojournalist appears to have it in his blood to proceed telling a narrative even when he’s exiting a scene. In October 2021, when Yam was lastly leaving Afghanistan on a humanitarian evacuation flight from Kabul to Doha, Qatar, the flight was nonetheless taxing on the runway once they heard the information {that a} native mosque had been bombed. At that second, Yam briefly thought of asking the pilot to let him off the airplane so he may return to work.

From Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Buffalo, New York

Yam was born in Malaysia, making him the primary Malaysian-born photojournalist (and sixth Los Angeles Instances journalist) to win a Pulitzer for images. He was additionally in his first yr as a international correspondent when he gained journalism’s high honor, making it an much more outstanding achievement.

“I used to be not concerned in images in Malaysia,” says Yam. “Wanting again, my focus and fervour within the issues I do in life have all the time been singular. I oftentimes don’t permit room for far more. Because the phrase goes from my favourite film, Gattaca, ‘You wish to understand how I did it? That is how I did it: I by no means saved something for the swim again.’

Mourners at a mass funeral search for and weep because the roar of jet engines drown out their wails in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021. Fighter jets circled the hilltop cemetery the place members of the Ahmadi household had been burying 10 of their very own – seven of them kids – all victims of a U.S. drone strike. A full day earlier than the U.S. army withdrawal approached its conclusion, demise continued to hang-out the war-torn nation. The airstrike got here within the wake of an airport bombing on Aug. 26 carried out by ISIS-Ok militants. The USA army claimed initially that it was focusing on an alleged Islamic extremist who posed the specter of finishing up an identical assault. A month later, it reversed its place, however the Pentagon determined no American troops could be punished. Left to grieve and surprise, Emal Ahmadi couldn’t perceive the way it could possibly be {that a} household may die and nobody be held accountable. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

Yam grew up in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, the place he practically dropped out of highschool as he was spending most of his waking hours taking part in video video games and dreaming of turning into knowledgeable esports gamer.

However he quickly realized his maturity could be tough, obtained again into research, and at age 19, was accepted on the College of Buffalo, New York, from the place he holds a level in aerospace engineering. He had picked the most important with aspirations of at some point turning into an astronaut.

After the stroke of midnight, Taliban fighters from the Fateh Zwak unit storm into Hamid Karzai Worldwide Airport, whereas sporting American-made uniforms and brandishing American M4 and M16 rifles and using U.S. pickup vans on Aug. 31, 2021. For 2 weeks, Kabul’s airport was the final tether to America’s management in Afghanistan, its runways the location of a frantic airlift that spirited greater than 120,000 folks in a foreign country. However there was no extra of that frenzied exercise on the deadline of the U.S. withdrawal, hours after the final U.S. army transport airplane rumbled into the evening sky, closing the chapter on a 20-year U.S. intervention that ended the way in which it started: with the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

“I Fell into Pictures As a result of I Was Lazy”

“In the direction of the tip of my time in college [of Buffalo], I used to be a pupil in want of English credit as a way to graduate, and the faculty newspaper supplied mentioned credit in change for writing or images providers,” explains Yam. “Clearly, I believed I selected the trail of least resistance. So, I purchased my first actual digital camera.

“I fell into images as a result of I used to be lazy.”

Journalists from the Etilaat Roz newspaper, Nemat Naqdi, 28, left and Taqi Daryabi, 22, undress to point out their wounds brought on by beatings from Taliban fighters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 8, 2021. The 2 had been tortured whereas in custody after being arrested for filming a rally for girls’s rights. The demonstrations got here simply at some point after the Taliban revealed an all-male interim authorities made up of stalwarts with zero illustration for girls or ethnic minority teams – their promise of a extra tolerant rule clearly damaged. “They didn’t let me resist,” Daryabi mentioned of the brutality he and his colleague suffered. He mentioned he was shoved to the bottom, tortured and crushed unconscious. He was taken to a yard and water was poured on him. He was nonetheless there once they introduced Naqdi. “We had been shouting that we’re journalists. However they didn’t care,” Naqdi mentioned. “I believed they had been going to kill me…They saved on ridiculing us, asking if we had been filming them.” Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

John Davis, then Design Director on the Buffalo Information, supplied him a photograph internship throughout his pupil days. Yam initially laughed on the concept. Davis advised him that he had one thing particular, and if he didn’t prefer it, he may return to aerospace engineering.

“I couldn’t say no to that problem,” Yam wrote in an Instagram submit in 2017. “I’m utterly indebted to people like him for serving to [me] develop into the photographer I’m proper now.”

John Davis, then Design Director on the Buffalo Information with Marcus Yam

“After my first internship at The Buffalo Information, I used to be at a loss. I had made the largest choice in my life, and but I didn’t have a roadmap to information me,” says Yam. “So, I pulled up my sleeves and went to work. I met lecturers like Loret Steinberg, a professor at RIT. I labored for legendary editors like Michel du Cille and Michele McNally, who weren’t afraid to inform me that I wanted much more work on myself and my voice as a way to succeed.

“It was not sufficient that you just knew how one can take a very good image. They taught me that you just wanted to know why you had been making photos and what sort of which means you search from it.”

Yam has been within the photojournalism enterprise for greater than a decade, however he actually started his skilled profession in New York when he caught a giant break with a prestigious internship with The New York Instances.

“My internships on the Washington Publish and The New York Instances led to what most contemplate a profitable freelance profession in NYC. I labored day-after-day. I lived in one of many greatest cities in America. And I used to be younger and hungry. Sooner or later, McNally requested me if I knew why I needed to turn into a photographer. She may see I had not answered that existential query for myself.

“That dialog despatched me on a quest. So, I left New York and took a place at The Seattle Instances. Why? I needed to develop… After three years in NYC, I noticed [I] was chasing success and a paycheck, however I used to be hitting a plateau by way of difficult myself.”

Marcus Yam standing within the rubble of Mosul, Iraq, years after the struggle, in Dec 2021. Photograph by Nabih Bulos of the Los Angeles Instances.

In Seattle, Yam ended up being with a workforce of journalists who had been awarded a Pulitzer in 2015 for his or her protection of a lethal 2014 landslide in Oso, Washington.

The work was extra group journalism oriented, and Yam even dabbled in conceptual work involving a collection of triple exposures for instance an essay about Seattle being a world metropolis. He labored within the rain lots. He was depressing not due to the climate however as a result of he didn’t know how one can work within the rain. So, he fastened that and was prepared for the following problem.

Photographer Marcus Yam. Photograph by Noah Berger.

“Finally, I outgrew my position in Seattle,” says the photojournalist. “It had solely been a yr or so into my job. Proper across the identical time, I met Calvin Hom, the Director of Pictures on the Los Angeles Instances, and he recruited me to come back and work for him. The remaining is historical past. I’ve been right here since, and are available this October, for so long as I’m nonetheless employed, I’ll mark eight years with this improbable establishment.”

Palestinian protesters assist carry away shot comrades whereas volunteer medical models are overwhelmed by casualties throughout a chaotic confrontation with Israeli troops alongside Gaza’s border on Might 14, 2018. Over six weeks main as much as that day, tens of 1000’s of Palestinians converged alongside the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip for a large wave of protests known as the Nice March of Return. The protesters demand the suitable of Palestinians to reclaim ancestral houses in Israel, marking a seventieth anniversary of Israel’s creation and mass Palestinian displacement that was additional heightened by the Trump administration’s controversial choice to maneuver the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
Ibraheem Mohammed Al-Tubassi, father, high, and different members of the family bid farewell to Yazan Ibraheem Mohammed Al-Tubassi, 23, on the Shifa Hospital morgue after he was shot within the eye by Israeli forces throughout the Nice March of Return in Gaza Metropolis, on Might 14, 2018. The newest deaths got here as Palestinians noticed what they name the Nakba, or disaster, of their mass displacement 70 years in the past throughout hostilities surrounding the creation of Israel. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
Baha Abu Ayash cries after being advised by kinfolk that his leg requires amputation at Shifa Hospital in Gaza Metropolis, on Might 19, 2018. Baha Abu Ayash was shot within the leg however now suffers from gangrene as a result of wounds attained from protests throughout the Nice March of Return. The wounded usually are not the one ones who will endure. Complete households depend upon the injured, most of them younger males of their 20s and early 30s. Many joined the protests as a result of they already had misplaced hope of discovering a job, getting married, or constructing a future on this deeply impoverished enclave of two million folks wedged between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
A Palestinian man carries a fellow protester after he was shot within the foot throughout a border protest east of the Gaza Metropolis, on Might 11, 2018. Regardless that the toll of violence throughout the two months of protests alongside the Gaza Strip‚ border with Israel is most frequently measured in deaths, the fact is that greater than 14,000 have been wounded ‚ 3,700 of them took bullets ‚in accordance with the Palestinian Ministry of Well being in Gaza. Almost 60% of these gunshot casualties had been hit within the legs ‚ a technique employed by the Israeli army to restrict killings. Most often, the sufferers shall be left with life-long disabilities. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
California wildfire season is now all-year-around. 2017 was essentially the most devastating wildfire season on file, which noticed a number of wildfires burning throughout the state, in accordance with CAL FIRE. The wildfires have burned greater than 1.5 million acres of land throughout the Golden State, together with 5 of the 20 most damaging wildland-urban interface fires within the state’s 85-year-old listing of huge wildfires. Hundreds of houses had been destroyed, numerous households had been compelled to rebuild and dozens of individuals have died. In a state with 39 million residents, firefighters are tackling faster-moving and extra damaging wildfires as drought situations proceed into the seventh yr.
A household packs up and evacuates because the Thomas hearth strikes nearer to their house in Ventura, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2017. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
Firefighters mop up after stopping the ahead progress of Castlewood Fireplace in Fullerton, Calif., on Oct. 30, 2019. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

Yam has additionally documented lethal clashes within the Gaza Strip, coated the San Bernardino, California, terrorist assaults in 2015, the lethal landslide in Oso, Washington, and many different essential occasions for which he has acquired quite a few awards.

Los Angeles County firefighter Captain Victor Correa, Battalion 13, helps put out a hotspot in a neighborhood razed by the Woolsey hearth on Harvester Street in Malibu, Calif., on Nov. 12, 2018. The Woolsey hearth is proving to be the more serious ever to strike the upscale coastal group. At the least 670 buildings had been destroyed contained in the Malibu metropolis limits, together with greater than 400 single-family houses with an estimated market worth of a minimum of $1.6 billion, in accordance with an evaluation of aerial imagery and property information. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
Migrant moms holding their kids watch as others disembark from the truck that transported them by the chilly plateau, often known as El Páramo de Berlín – essentially the most harmful a part of the Andes to get to the opposite aspect, on the outskirts of Bucaramanga, Colombia. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
Information cameras usually give attention to the destruction and demise from a wildfire however overlook those that survive or are displaced. Within the aftermath of the “unprecedented” monster of a wildfire — 85 lifeless, greater than 13,900 houses had been destroyed and Paradise was decimated. Most of the displaced – greater than 50,000 folks – search shelter at a Walmart parking zone in Chico, Calif. and brace the winter temperatures of their autos, and await their destiny. Some attempt to return to recuperate objects or verify on their houses and a few strive to determine a future after Paradise.
Ryan Spainhower embraces his spouse, Kimberly Spainhower after he recovers a coin that he and his spouse made throughout their honeymoon in 2004, from the particles of his house that was destroyed by the Camp Fireplace in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 18, 2018. The coin reads: “KIM & RYAN SOULMATES 4EVER.” Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
From left, Johnny Hardin, 15, Madeline Hardin, 13, Donita Hardin and Erik Hardin, 15 months previous, get able to sleep of their automobile to remain heat within the freezing chilly after getting displaced by the Campfire, on the Walmart parking zone in Chico, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2018. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

Digital camera Gear and Touring Gentle

Yam shoots with a Sony a9 II full-frame mirrorless digital camera with the Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS, a zoom lens he leaves on his digital camera physique on a regular basis. This association permits him to journey mild within the discipline. He does pack two extra small lenses for reserve as effectively.

He primarily shoots obtainable mild but in addition carries a tiny flash from Hong Kong-based LightPix Labs FlashQ system known as the X20, an merchandise he found on PetaPixel.

Overseas correspondent and photographer Marcus Yam throughout the protection of the Nagorno-Karabakh struggle in Azerbaijan. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances
Marcus Yam interacts with the fishermen on a 24-hour fishing journey off the coast of Gaza. Photograph by Nabih Bulos of the Los Angeles Instances.

Yam shoots each RAW in addition to JPEG, and his favourite picture software program for culling is what most photojournalists use: Photograph 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 by “trochas,” shortcut unlawful paths, usually managed by the “colectivos,” an armed paramilitary group supporting the Nicolás Maduro and the Bolivarian authorities, close to the Simón Bolívar Worldwide Bridge, in Cúcuta, Colombia. Photograph by Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances

On the time of this writing, Yam has as soon as once more traveled from Los Angeles to Ukraine to take viewers to the frontlines of the continued battle and wrestle.

You’ll be able to see extra of Marcus Yam’s work on his web site and Instagram, and all 15 images of his Pulitzer-winning portfolio could be discovered on the prize’s web site.


In regards to the writer: Phil Mistry is a photographer and instructor primarily based in Atlanta, GA. He began one of many first digital digital camera courses in New York Metropolis at The Worldwide Middle of Pictures within the 90s. He was the director and instructor for Sony/Fashionable Pictures journal’s Digital Days Workshops. You’ll be able to attain him right here.


Picture credit: All images courtesy Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Instances.



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