"I was a feisty kid growing up...I really thought I was going to be an esports gamer. I was playing lots and lots of video games, which my parents sure as hell didn't like."
Marcus Yam, BS ’06, never saw it coming. It was August of last year, just five days after the Taliban had retaken control of Afghanistan, and Yam was photographing a chaotic protest on the streets of Kabul. But as the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist prepared to take a photo of a nearby brawl, he was sucker-punched.
A stunned Yam turned to see a large man, clearly a Taliban fighter, screaming at him in Dari. As Yam attempted to explain he was foreign press—and therefore not someone the Taliban should be punching—the fighter continued to beat him. Nearby gunfire momentarily distracted the man, but before Yam could escape, he was hit so hard his glasses popped off as he fell to the ground.
In that moment, Yam had the overwhelming desire not to run, or to fight back, or to curl up in a ball and whimper. Instead he wanted to do what he does better than almost anyone else.
Take a photo.
Yam grew up in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, the oldest of four kids being raised by a civil engineer father and real-estate agent mother. He was a voracious reader, gravitating toward science books, but he was also an intense video gamer.
“I was a feisty kid growing up,” Yam says over lunch in Los Angeles. “I almost dropped out of high school because I really thought I was going to be an esports gamer. I was playing lots and lots and lots of video games, which my parents sure as hell didn’t like.”
Understandably so. Yam estimates that at one point in high school, he’d been truant for 200 out of 300 school days. When his parents attempted to limit his use of the phone line to play Counter-Strike and StarCraft in his room, Yam secretly bought 300 feet of cable and set up a workaround his parents became aware of only when they received an astronomical phone bill.
What turned Yam around was a feeling that continues to define his adult life—an intense dislike of stillness. Shortly before he was due to (barely) graduate, Yam says he had the first of several “lightbulb moments” in his life when he envisioned adulthood if he continued on his current trajectory. What he saw terrified him.
“I was like, Oh my God, I’m gonna grow up to be like my parents,” he says. “I’m gonna live in the same city, see the same things, same people, same environment, same routine, even the same restaurants. And I was like, I need to get out of here.”
About three weeks before he was due to take his O Levels—tests similar to the SATs—he buckled down and started studying. He did well enough on the tests to get into a local program that, much like a junior college, allowed Malaysian students to inexpensively fulfill basic requirements before moving on to a U.S. university.
Yam did so well that he was accepted to every school he’d hoped to get into. He chose to come to UB as an aerospace engineering major in part because he dreamed of being a NASA astronaut and in part, he admits, because he was following his girlfriend. (They broke up about a year later.) It didn’t take him long to settle in and make an impression with his fellow students and his professors.
“Marcus was a great, unique student,” says Kemper Lewis, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “I saw him in class one day with a camera around his neck and asked him about it. Photography was clearly a passion he made a lot of time for, which told me he was disciplined—most engineering students are overwhelmed by just their homework alone.”
His senior year, Yam had another lightbulb moment. He was interning at The Buffalo News as a photographer, and three weeks in, he realized that it was what he wanted to do with his life. People at the paper recognized his talent and work ethic, and toward the end of the internship he was offered an interview to become a staff photographer. The paper, however, rescinded the offer after Yam accidentally slept through the interview. The reason? He’d been working until 3 a.m. photographing a house fire for the paper.
December of 2006 was an eventful month for Yam. He graduated. He took his first postgraduate step toward a career in photography. And he got into a serious car accident that left him with a fractured skull and a physical inability to do much of anything for several months.
Idleness not being his forte, Yam got in touch with a photographer at The Buffalo News who moonlighted as a team photographer for the Sabres—and who needed an assistant, a job Yam could physically perform while healing.
For the next several months, Yam changed camera batteries, set up remote cameras in hockey nets, and in general solved problems—something he says his engineering classes prepared him to do. An Associated Press photographer he met along the way helped Yam get a summer 2007 internship back in Malaysia, where a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop led to Yam being offered exclusive access to a secret camp of persecuted Burmese refugees. All he had to do was follow the stranger into the jungle.
“This was before cellphones were prevalent, so I wasn’t able to tell anyone where I was going,” Yam says. “But I couldn’t not go. And he seemed trustworthy enough.”
For much of the summer, Yam would work eight hours shooting what he was assigned at the AP, then head to the camp and spend another eight hours there, getting to know the people, shooting photos and taking notes. It wasn’t the most efficient way to report a story, but Yam was learning—and when he presented the project to his AP bosses, they ran it.
After a few months in Kuala Lumpur, Yam returned to the States and began a string of prestigious internships at newspapers including The Washington Post. He also interned in the studio of legendary war photographer James Nachtwey, where Yam says his UB education helped him quickly master complex digital darkroom and post-production techniques while helping to prepare an exhibition of Nachtwey’s work.
“I discovered this innate passion to really burrow into stories,” he says. “Put me there, and when I isolate what it is I need to do, I will dig the hole. I will keep digging until I show up on the other side of the Earth. I will stay there until I get the job done.”
Finally, an internship at The New York Times turned into steady freelance work for the paper. But after three years, Yam was again feeling restless, in need of a new challenge. So he gave up his coveted gig and took a staff job across the country at The Seattle Times, where he was part of a team of reporters awarded a Pulitzer for their coverage of a deadly 2014 landslide north of Seattle. Yam unexpectedly remained working in the area for three weeks. The experience provided another lightbulb moment.
The Los Angeles Times took notice of Yam’s work, and about 15 months after he’d arrived in Seattle, he headed south to become a staff photographer in LA. There he added celebrity portraitist to his long list of skills, photographing the likes of Natalie Portman, Benedict Cumberbatch and Rami Malek. He covered the state’s many wildfires—weaving through infernos in his trusty Ford Fusion, which often doubled as his sleeping quarters when on assignment—and chronicled the suffering of Palestinians amid deadly clashes in the Gaza Strip. He was also part of another Pulitzer-winning team that covered the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.
When a chance to do a story in Iraq presented itself in 2017, Yam leapt at it—and then remained in Iraq months longer than originally planned, doing stories as the country fought to drive out the Islamic State. One of these stories was a profile of an Iraqi bomb diffuser whom Yam accompanied one day to the contested city of Mosul. After dodging sniper fire along the way, they entered a building rigged with several exploding booby traps. Yam photographed the soldier, up close, disarming the traps. Neither of them wore any protective gear.
Though he doesn’t refer to himself as a conflict journalist, Yam’s experiences in war-torn places prepared him for the chaos he encountered in Afghanistan in 2021 when the Taliban retook control of the country. Yam remained in Kabul from August to October, long after many other U.S. journalists had initially pulled out. During that time, he maintained a grueling schedule as he helped produce dozens of stories documenting the painful transition.
And that’s how on a sunny August morning Yam got beaten up by the Taliban in the midst of a violent protest. Though he was no stranger to dangerous situations while on the job, this was on another level.
“It pales in comparison to what any of the Afghans face,” Yam says. “But it was a terrible experience. If he points his gun at me, I’m dead.”
Yam was lucky. A Taliban fighter who spoke English heard Yam say he was with The Los Angeles Times and finally intervened. Yam was ushered into some shade and offered an energy drink, and the fighter ensured he had a ride back to his office. A third fighter even asked for a picture with Yam.
Yam doesn’t make light of the experience—nor does he let it keep him stateside. Today, as the Times’s “roving foreign correspondent,” he no longer bothers maintaining a permanent address; when he’s in LA, he stays with friends he considers family.
His obvious delight at spending time with his LA family, along with his stylish fade haircut and black outfit, at first make it seem like Yam belongs here. But over the course of our lunch, it becomes clear that it’s not that simple. In LA, there’s no work to be done. Not enough to learn. And Yam is like a great record being played at the wrong speed. As we depart, he says he’s not sure how long he’ll be in town.
Turns out, not long. He texts a week later to say hello—from Iraq.
“I’m going to find a peaceful Thanksgiving meal in Baghdad,” Yam writes. “And then I’m going to work on some stories.”