Marcus Yam is a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times and the winner of two Pulitzers. Having covered California wildfires extensively, he is deeply familiar with the challenge of documenting tragedy and humanity up close. Yam offers his Brief but Spectacular take on the sensitivity and perspective he brings to his work.
Judy Woodruff: It is said that a picture can speak 1,000 words.
Photojournalist Marcus Yam looks for images to tell the tale of heart-wrenching moments.
Here is his Brief But Spectacular take on what we learn from what we see.
Marcus Yam: I am a natural busybody.
For my school projects, I would just drive up to farms and make my long way up these long driveways and just, hey, how’s it going? Can I come take pictures?
In most situations that I look in, most people want somebody to talk to. And you’re there to listen to what they have to say, you know, and, in some ways, comfort them for their loss.
I have been to almost every major wildfire in California, including the biggest one, called the Thomas Fire. The thing I heard on the radio made me realize that this was unstoppable, that firefighters were telling each other that: We’re out of units. You’re on your own. Like, we just don’t have enough resources to send your way.
And that’s when I know things were getting out of control. At one point, I waited on top of a hill, waiting for the fire to come to me, and I waited a little too long. And I remember having to drive through this, like, wall of flame with my car. And I can feel the heat just, like, searing my skin, inside that car that was protected by all that metal and glass and air conditioning.
The common idea that people have is that the news media is just running around taking pictures, reporting from wildfires without any sensitivity. 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.
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. 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.
“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.”
My name is Marcus Yam. This is my Brief But Spectacular take on uncovering the unknown.
Judy Woodruff: And a reminder of the important role that photojournalists play.
You can find additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.