Published October 9, 2017
Marcus Yam’s unlikely path from aerospace engineering major at UB to Pulitzer Prize winning photographer began with a simple flyer. The Spectrum was recruiting new staff members by advertising that contributors could receive English course credits for writing articles or taking photos.
The flyer was especially appealing to Yam who, as an international student — he was born in Malaysia — needed to fulfill a certain number of course credits in English. “I thought, that’s an easy way to get credits, even better than taking an English class. So out of sheer laziness, I signed up and bought my first camera and was immediately hooked to taking pictures,” Yam, a 2006 graduate of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, recalled Friday during one of two talks he gave in the Student Union Theater.
Yam’s work at The Spectrum caught the attention of John Davis, then the design director for the Buffalo News, who offered him an internship. “That internship changed my life,” Yam said. “For those of you who are in the right field and doing what you love, you know this feeling — it’s as though the planets have lined up. I just knew this is what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life.”
Yam is now a staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times. He was originally scheduled to come to campus last spring for a communicators conference but had to postpone his visit when the newspaper sent him to Mosul, Iraq, on an extended assignment. He was able to spend a few days at UB last week, meeting with students and faculty and talking about his career as a visual storyteller. “When I graduated as a student here, I didn’t think I was coming back ever again,” Yam joked.
“Marcus’ journey has been nothing but amazing and inspiring,” Scott Weber, UB’s vice president for student life, said in introducing Yam to a crowd of faculty, staff and students who came to hear him speak and show a few highlights of his work. “His success illustrates the idea presented in a National Science Foundation report that a degree is not an identity or a destiny.”
In the 11 years since he graduated, Yam has traveled the globe photographing celebrities and capturing the raw emotion of natural disasters, protests and terror attacks. This summer, Yam covered the Coachella music festival in California.
Yam has shared two Pulitzers, one as a member of the Seattle Times team that won for its coverage of the mudslides that killed 43 people in rural Washington state in 2014; the second was as a member of the Los Angeles Times staff that won for its coverage of the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attack in 2015.
Sometimes, Yam said, he looks to capture the absurd, like when he photographed a guitar-wielding man, dressed like a ram, at Coachella. Other times, it’s about relating, such as when he photographed a motorist who was just looking to get home after what must have been a long day but couldn’t because his car was caught in the middle of a protest in Los Angeles. And other times, the best photos are the result of persistence and fighting through the crowd.
“It always is worth it just to go the extra mile to see what’s around the corner,” he said.
On Thursday, Yam offered his perspective and some words of wisdom to students in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
“Love what you do, and throw yourself into it whole-heartedly,” Yam told graduate students as part of the annual Career Perspectives and Networking Conference.
Yam joined fellow UB alums Dennis Elsenbeck, head of energy and sustainability at Phillips Lytle, LLP, Allison O’Connor, business unit operations manager at Moog, and Ashish Shah, vice president of research and development for advanced surgical and orthopaedics at Integer, as part of a panel discussion on “Building a Fulfilling Career vs. Having a Job: An Introspective Look.” They shared their collective wisdom with about 100 graduate students on topics ranging from why networking skills are important to how to turn impatience into positive work opportunities.
Yam also talked with current mechanical and aerospace engineering students, sharing stories about his travels and experiences as a photojournalist. The visit was hosted by Kemper Lewis, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.