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A Pulitzer-Winning Photojournalist on Capturing Tragedy and Humanity

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PBS NewsHour just aired this 3-minute Brief but Spectacular episode in which Los Angeles Times staff photographer Marcus Yam talks about the challenge of documenting tragedy and humanity up close.

Yam has won two Pulitzer Prizes already in his career: one as part of the Los Angeles Times‘ staff in covering the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attacks in 2015 and one as part of the Seattle Times staff in covering the landslide in Oso, Washington, in 2014.

In recent years, Yam has been turning his attention to documenting the devastating wildfires that have been breaking out across California, in the process becoming close friends with the other photographers shooting on the front lines of the flames.

In the video above, Yam shares about the challenges of covering wildfires safely and sensitively.

“The common idea that people have is that the news media is just running around taking pictures, reporting from wildfires without any sensitivity,” Yam says. “But, in reality, we’re just trying to do our jobs, trying to get as much information about the conditions of the fire, how far it spread and all that stuff.”

Yam shares of one experience had with a homeowner through covering the Erskine Fire at Lake Isabella in 2016.

“I was at the Erskine Fire in Lake Isabella, and I came across this one home that was getting surrounded by fire. And it had this tattered American flag,” Yam says. “I jumped out of the vehicle and took a photo of that, and I moved on. And I didn’t think much of it.

“The homeowner for that home was actually nearby, saw me do that, and thought less of me. He actually ended up following our coverage for the rest of the fire, looked up the work that we did, and wrote me this beautiful letter.”

Here’s what the letter, which was accompanied by a large package, said:

Dear Marcus Yam,

I stood a few feet from you when you took this picture of my home. I thought to myself, another vulture sensationalizing on people’s misery. After seeing this photograph and looking at your portfolio, I was wrong. You portray human emotion without all the makeup and glamour. You have my respect. My home withstood the test that night, and Old Glory still waves. Today, I replaced that tattered flag with a new and shiny one. I would like you to take care of that old flag for me.

Sincerely, Darl Snyder.

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2017 was an eventful year. But one memory stood out: when Darl Synder, a reader, sent me an American Flag in the mail. I was on assignment overseas when I got an email from my equipment manager asking me if I bought a television and had it sent to the office. I chuckled at the idea and thought it was a practical joke being played on me. I don’t usually get correspondence from readers. As a photographer, we’re accustomed to being invisible, in-and-out of people lives, witnessing moments and observing conflict. And if I do, it’s usually “Great photos!” or “how did you get that picture?” While sitting in an abandoned building, I read the transcript of Darl’s letter and teared up. It reminded me of the special privilege we have as photojournalists. And when I returned to Los Angeles, I found the package waiting for me and decided to put it on display outside our photo department for visitors and the rest of the newsroom to share. But I had never met Darl Synder. So on the anniversary of the destructive and deadly Erskine fire I decided to return to Lake Isabella to pay him a visit. And when we finally met, we talked, talked and talked – about what happened during and after the fire, about the kindness of strangers and how he managed to send the flag by mail. He was thankful for all the information and reports we published during the Erskine Fire. I remember blushing when he proudly showed me where he hung the picture that I took, framed above his television in the living room. As I was departing, we stood outside his gate – adorned with a new flag and we decided that we needed a picture together. After I left, another brushfire broke out near Lake Isabella and I was hurling my way towards it.

A post shared by Marcus Yam (@yamphoto) on

You can find more of Yam’s work on his website, Twitter, and Instagram.

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