Published May 11, 2015
Marcus Yam came to UB to study engineering. He left besotted by photojournalism.
Now, 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 a horrific mudslide that killed 43 people in rural Washington.
The honor, awarded under the breaking news category, was one of 14 journalism Pulitzers announced last month. (The Buffalo News was a finalist for the same award for its coverage of last November’s historic snowstorm.)
“It has been a very humbling experience,” says Yam, a native of Malaysia who earned a BS in aerospace engineering from UB in 2007. “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 rushed to the scene and encountered chaos. The mudslide engulfed an entire neighborhood.
He soon was hanging out of a helicopter, taking pictures that would be distributed worldwide showing the mudslide’s devastating effects. He spent days at the site, capturing images of residents, rescue workers and the landscape.
The award, Yam says, is bittersweet because so many people died. However, he is proud of the work he and his co-workers did.
Yam, who eventually earned a photography degree and now works at the Los Angeles Times, says his engineering background plays a role in how he approaches his job.
“It really informs my work,” he explains. “I take a very analytical and technical approach to everything that I shoot.”
His success illustrates the idea, presented in a recent National Science Foundation report, that “degree is not destiny.” The report found that STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduates in the U.S., compared to other countries, are less constrained by their field of degree in pursuing career options.
Yam credits his experience at UB for introducing him to photojournalism, having signed up to shoot photographs for UB’s student newspaper, The Spectrum, to fulfill requirements to graduate. Yam’s photos also were published in the UB Reporter.
His work at The Spectrum 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 he 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.