Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Marcus Yam returns to UB
The career path of an aerospace engineering alum to award-winning photographer
Vice President for Student Life Scott Weber introduced Marcus Yam, a nationally recognized news photographer, by saying, “a degree is not an identity or a destiny.”
For Yam, these words mean everything: he graduated from UB with a degree in aerospace engineering in 2006, but instead pursued a career in photojournalism.
Yam presented his collections in the Student Union Theater on Friday. His collection featured photos of California wildfires, mass shootings in America and the battles between the Iraqi forces and Islamic state. His work led him to win numerous awards, including an Emmy and two Pulitzer Prize-winning articles for breaking news reporting.
Yam credits UB for introducing him to his passion for photography.
He recalls his first moments working as a photographer for The Spectrum and how his work captured the attention of editorial design director John Davis of the Buffalo News. Davis offered Yam an internship that changed his life.
“I became my own person [in Buffalo]. I learned about myself here,” Yam said. “I developed my sense of grit here and put up with all types of hardships that I never thought that I’d have to put up with. It’s a small place but it taught me the value of just zigging and zagging until you find the right path.”
Yam talked about an uncontrollable wildfire that endangered both him and his intern. They both escaped the fire, but Yam’s tenacity and dedication to his job led him to run back for an astounding shot of the inferno.
Fatak Borhani, a junior aerospace engineering major, applauded Yam’s ability to present key issues in America honestly and appropriately.
“Today, I understand that a photographer’s work is not easy. It’s risky,” Borhani said. “They really bring out what is happening in the real world with the frames that they’re taking.”
Yam searches for faces, emotions and public outcry in the crowd when capturing events. Audience members sat in silence as Yam began to illustrate the reality he’s experienced behind America’s issue with mass shootings.
Yam never tries to be intentionally intrusive when covering these tragedies. He stresses the importance of capturing the pictures for the public, but is mindful of the privacies and mournings of others on the job.
Capturing the aftermath of tragedies has never been easy, according to Yam.
“You see it in everybody’s face. It’s really upsetting. You photograph these things. You absorb on some level their grievances, their stress and you try to illustrate it,” Yam said. “It’s sad to say that candle light vigils are now a normal thing. I hate to see it normalized.”
His portrayal of the San Bernardino mass shooting in 2015 stood out to many audience members.
Alex Young, a senior environmental engineering major, spoke about his appreciation for Yam’s ability to capture the issue.
“Seeing all those photos on the mass shooting was really important. It made me realize how much of a status quo it has become and it’s really unfortunate to say that it is becoming more and more normalized,” Young said.
When asked how he remains unafraid of photographing events and tragedies, Yam said he is afraid but works through it.
“I’m always [very scared],” Yam said. “I’m not the most courageous person I know. In the moment, I don’t think about it. In these dire situations, there’s a point of serenity where it seems as if everything is quiet and you just know what you’re supposed to do. That’s how I approach my work and I work better that way.”
In his website’s biography, he describes his photography style as “deeply rooted in curiosity and persistence.”
His assignments are often tragic and intense, but he tries to find a positive outlook on these situations. He fondly shared an image of armed police officers lined up being viewed through a bubble–a more artistic side to his job.
“I’m just a dude chasing a bubble for a shot,” Yam said.
Yam’s decision to choose an unexpected path inspired fellow engineers in the crowd. Yam related to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and showed a photo of himself with a camera during graduation.
“This was me at graduation – the only engineering dude with the camera in hand – lining up to get on stage,” Yam said. “I didn’t think at that point my life would turn out this way. [It] said a lot.”
Yam’s choice to leave aerospace engineering for photography resonated with Young.
“I’m an engineer major and photography is one of my hobbies,” Young said. “To see what he could do and be so impactful shows me more possibilities beyond my major.”