Former San Jose Mercury News photographer Len Vaughn-Lahman lost his battle with cancer on Friday, July 10 after fighting for more than a year. Vaughn-Lahman, 55, died at his home in Aptos.
He joined the Mercury News in 1981, after stints at the Arizona Daily Star, where he was the chief photographer preceded by staff photography positions with the Los Angeles Times, Columbia (Missouri) Daily Star, the St. Petersburg Times (as an intern) and National Geographic Magazine (also as an intern).
He was honored with the Robert F. Kennedy Award in 1981 for a freelance piece published by the Escondido (California) Times-Advocate, on the plight of immigrants making the dangerous trek across the desert from Mexico to cross the border into the United States, seeking a better life.
Mercury News Director of Photography Michael Malone said, "During his time at the Mercury News, Len excelled in a great variety of assignments, including coverage of the Rodney King trial riots in Los Angeles, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terror attacks as well as the invasion of Iraq. He is also known for a project in which he and writer Pete Carey exposed what have become known as the 'golfing judges' superior court judges who took Fridays off from their court dockets to play golf instead. He was well known for his never-say-die, there’s-always-a-solution attitude. He was gregarious, fearless, larger-than-life and relentless, yet he was gentle, funny and always made everyone feel valued and important."
"His favorite motto," said Sharon, his wife of 12 years, "was 'Drive it like you stole it.' And he ran his life that way. He lived life fully. His favorite thing was being a foreign correspondent, traveling to Iraq, to Afghanistan, any place there was a war. He was an adrenaline junkie. He liked being put into different situations and then figuring out how to dig out."
His wife and friends said Vaughn-Lahman brought the same intensity to his battle with cancer as he did to the photojournalism that won him numerous awards and took him on often hair-raising assignments around the globe. "We tried very hard to heal his body," his wife said. "We tried conventional medicine and that wasn't working, so we went the alternative route and he gave it our best shot."
Born in North Carolina in 1953, and raised in Fostoria, Ohio, he gravitated at an early age to the black-and-white world unfolding in the pages of the local newspaper. After first photographing weddings at 13, he took a job at 16 at the hometown Review Times Fostoria. He was a graduate of the photojournalism program at Ohio University Athens and the post-graduate program at the University of Missouri.
Mercury News photographer Maria J. Avila-Lopez called him "the patriarch of the photo department."
Mercury News photographer and longtime friend Karen Borchers took a lot of wild journalistic rides with the good-natured storyteller who often looked as if he had just blown in from some exotic locale. "While we were covering the Rodney King riots," she said, "Len got his rental car windows smashed by an angry mob. But I always knew we were in good hands and I always felt protected when Len was running the show."
Mercury News writer Paul Rogers recalls driving through a remote stretch of Brazil's rain forest with Vaughn-Lahman when "We came across 10 or 15 men with machetes, illegally clearing out the land. It was the perfect picture, but it was very dangerous. Len jumped out of the car with his cameras blazing and ran right toward them. He didn't speak Portuguese but he got the shot and somehow ended up talking to them. I stayed in the car, but they seemed to be smiling. He was the most fearless newspaper photographer I've ever worked with," said Rogers. "He was Indiana Jones with a camera."
But it was in Iraq and Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks that the Vaughn-Lahman legend really took off. There were his incredible photos of fierce gunbattles with the Taliban. He was carjacked and robbed in Iraq. Rogers recalls Vaughn-Lahman telling him how he once used a small mirror on a stick to take pictures from around a wall during a shootout. Upon his return, Vaughn-Lahman wrote: "We feel as if we're trapped in an elaborate video game as we rattle down the rutted ditch that serves as the road to Taloqan. It's the 14th century, but with rocket launchers."
He is survived by his wife, Sharon, of Aptos; his daughter Lisa; his brother Bruce Lahman of Boulder, Colo.; and his mother and father, Mary and Lyle Lahman of Fostoria, Ohio.
You can see photos of Len and his wife Sharon at their home in Aptos in April 2008, courtesy of Joanne Ho-Young Lee/Joanne Lee Photography.
You can contact his wife:
1025 Huntington Drive
Aptos, CA 95003
Information for this story from Sharon Vaughn-Lahman, San Jose Mercury News writer Patrick May, Director of Photography Michael Maloney and former Mercury News photographer Joanne Ho-Young Lee.
San Jose Mercury News
Director of Photography