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Behind the Lens

An engineering grad’s unusual path leads to journalism’s top honor

By Cory Nealon

Marcus Yam, BS ’06

Marcus Yam, BS ’06. Photo: Damon Winter

“Each step we would sink a little bit. The ground was like quicksand. The smell was just awful."
Marcus Yam, BS '06

Marcus Yam (BS ’06) came to UB to study engineering. He left besotted by photojournalism.

Now, just nine years later, he can claim a Pulitzer Prize—widely considered the highest honor in the United States for journalism—for his role in The Seattle Times’ coverage of the Oso mudslide, which killed 43 people in rural Washington.

The honor, awarded to the Times’ staff under the breaking news category, was one of 14 journalism Pulitzers announced in April. “It has been a very humbling experience,” says Yam. “You don’t expect to win anything like that in your lifetime.”

Yam was the only Times photographer on duty when reports of the mudslide surfaced on the morning of March 22, 2014. He was in Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle, when his editor called. Information was scant, but Yam was told to drop everything and head north toward Oso, a remote town of roughly 200 people about 60 miles from Seattle.

Before reaching the town, he encountered a roadblock. Emergency responders would not let him drive through. So he parked his car and walked into the woods, past the authorities, toward the mudslide. About that time, his editor called.

“I told him I was walking to the slide. He said that was a terrible idea. What if there’s another slide?” Yam froze. His editor was right. He turned back. They came up with a better idea: Photograph it from the sky.

Within an hour, Yam was hanging out of a helicopter taking pictures showing how the mudslide, at roughly 15 football fields wide, had engulfed an entire neighborhood. 

He continued to pursue the story after landing. He spent days operating out of Darrington, where the emergency operations center was based, capturing images of residents, rescue workers and the landscape—all of which were distributed worldwide.

“We hiked four hours through the mountains—there was no trail—to reach the slide,” he recalls. “Each step we would sink a little bit. The ground was like quicksand. The smell was just awful.”

The Pulitzer is bittersweet, Yam says, because so many people died. However, he is proud of the work that he and his co-workers did.

A native of Malaysia, Yam came to UB in 2003 to study aerospace engineering, specifically unmanned aerial vehicles and the engineering design process. It wasn’t until his senior year, needing to fulfill a requirement to graduate, that he signed up to shoot photographs for UB’s student newspaper. At the time, he didn’t own a camera. “I bought my first camera ever thanks to The Spectrum,” he says. “I shot student government elections, football games and other events.”

His work caught the attention of John Davis, then-design director at The Buffalo News, who offered him an internship. After a few weeks in the newsroom, Yam knew that he had found his calling. “I had so much fun there. It was one of those rare moments in life when everything seemed to come together. Things were just clicking. That’s when I realized that this is what I wanted to do,” he says.

He went on to study photography at Ohio University and now works for the Los Angeles Times. The engineering skills he learned at UB, he says, influence his work. “I take a very analytical and technical approach to everything that I shoot,” he explains.

What does the future hold for Yam? He is not sure. He cites the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” as a guide:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took one the less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.