Meet the Malaysian photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize


Recently, Malaysians have been celebrating photographer Marcus Yam, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work in Afghanistan. He’s currently a Los Angeles Times (L.A. Times) foreign correspondent and staff photographer.

The Pulitzer Prize is an award that recognises achievements in American journalism, literature, and music. Only 13 are given out each year, and Marcus is the first Malaysian-born individual to win the prize in the Breaking News Photography category.

In true digital native style, I sleuthed around online and found some interesting information about Marcus that makes him all the more inspiring.

1. He almost dropped out of high school… to be a pro gamer

Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Marcus was an “intense video gamer” according to an article from AtBuffalo, a publication from his alma mater, the University at Buffalo.

Marcus described himself as a feisty kid who almost dropped out of high school because he thought he had a future in esports. He estimated that he might’ve played hooky and skipped school 200 out of 300 days.

At the time, his parents, who understandably did not like their son’s obsession with gaming, tried to limit his use of the phone line. But Marcus had other plans.

According to AtBuffalo, “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.”

Well, that’s dedication for you.

2. He studied aerospace engineering, with a dream to become an astronaut

After taking the O Levels and studying at a Malaysian college, Marcus set off to the United States where he took up an aerospace engineering major.

On the left is Marcus with a 9-year-old in Ukraine who gave him an embroidered heart / Image Credit: Marcus Yam / Twitter

However, he was already interested in photography at the time. According to an account by Kemper Lewis, the dean of his university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Marcus was seen in class with a camera around his neck.            

3. He’s won numerous other awards for his work before

In fact, Marcus has many, many more accolades. As displayed on his page on the L.A. Times website, his work has earned an Emmy Award for News and Documentary, World Press Photo Award, DART Award for Trauma Coverage, Scripps Howard Visual Journalism Award, Picture of the Year International’s Newspaper Photographer of the Year Award and—whew. So. Much. More.

A photo taken by Marcus that shows women and children crouching at a Taliban-controlled checkpoint / Image Credit: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

Point is, Marcus has produced tons of amazing photographs, and we, along with the rest of the Malaysian population, are proud that he’s been acknowledged for them.

4. Technically, it isn’t his first encounter with a Pulitzer Prize

Marcus was part of not one but two Pulitzer Prize-winning news teams. Specifically, he covered the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attacks in 2015 for the Los Angeles Times. A year prior, he covered the deadly landslide in Oso Washington for the Seattle Times.

5. He came back to Malaysia early in his career & covered a refugee crisis without a proper plan

Since the beginning of his photojournalism career, Marcus has been bravely following dangerous leads and covering conflict-ridden beats.

During an internship in 2007 here in Malaysia, he struck up a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop, who offered him exclusive access to a secret camp of persecuted Burmese refugees.

At the time, cell phones weren’t common, so he couldn’t even inform anyone of his choice to simply follow the stranger into the jungle.

His job scope didn’t exactly extend to covering the Burmese refugees, but when he showed it to his bosses at Associated Press, they decide to run it. His time and effort were not wasted.

6. He was beaten up by the Taliban while on the job

To cover the Taliban’s surge back to power last year in Afghanistan, Marcus spent months in the region, even after other news organisations left.

“This was perhaps the hardest and most stressful time for me as a director of photography,” Calvin Hom, executive director of photography at L.A. Times, wrote about Marcus’ time in the country. “I worried about his safety daily, as I’m sure many of us in the newsroom did as well.”

Unfortunately, their worries were well-founded, because Marcus ended up being beaten by the Taliban amidst a violent protest during a national flag rally.

“It pales in comparison to what any of the Afghans face,” he said to AtBuffalo. “But it was a terrible experience. If he points his gun at me, I’m dead.”

A photo Marcus took in Afghanistan depicting wreckage caused by a missile launched from a U.S. drone / Image Credit: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

Thankfully, Marcus made it out of the situation when a Taliban fighter intervened, having heard that he was with the L.A. Times.

7. Most recently, he was photojournaling in war-torn Ukraine

Scrolling through Marcus’ Twitter account, I am flooded by intense, emotional, and gut-wrenching photos taken in Ukraine. His photos tell a vivid story about the situation in the country and the danger faced by locals due to the Russian invasion.

According to a Twitter update from Marcus on April 4, he had exited the country, stepping away from the conflict due to health reasons. We hope he’s feeling better, and that he knows Malaysians are cheering him on.

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Just last year, another Malaysian-born talent also won a Pulitzer Prize, albeit for Explanatory Reporting. Edmund Yong, a British science journalist was awarded for his series of articles on the COVID-19 pandemic published by The Atlantic.

Malaysia boleh!    

  • Learn more about Marcus Yam here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysians here.

Featured Image Credit: Nabih Bulos / Los Angeles Times





Source hungryforbalance.com