SAN JOSE, CA – Len Vaughn-Lahman, who spent nearly three decades as a San Jose Mercury News photojournalist after shooting for a number of newspapers and magazines, including National Geographic and the Los Angeles Times, died Friday after battling cancer for a year. He was 55.
Many of his friends and former coworkers told the Mercury News that the photojournalist was "bigger than life" and remembered him for his adventures around the world, and for being "an adrenaline junkie," and for his smile and hugs. Sharon, who was his wife for 12 years, told the paper that Vaughn-Lahman's favorite motto about life was, "Drive it like you stole it."
"He was everything they report in his obit, and a friend," photography editor Jim Mendenhall of Pittsburgh, PA, said. "When I went to Columbia for the volcano eruption in 1985 I went through all sorts of crazy things to get to Bogota [including climbing through the airport's luggage system to get to the tarmac to cover an arriving flight of evacuees]. When the plane rolled up, the first person to come down the ramp was Len."
"He was not only a great friend and a mentor to many," former coworker Tom Van Dyke said, "but also a tremendously respected photojournalist. Len was always sticking up for the little guy, whether it was the poorest of the poor for his fellow newspaper guild members, much to the irritation of those with power or money."
"He was one of the best," Sue Morrow said. Now at the Sacramento Bee, she worked with Vaughn-Lahman at the Mercury News. "He taught me so much, and made everyone laugh. He was special. When he got the news about his cancer, his doctors told him he had about three months to live. Typical Len, he told them, 'You don't know me.' He beat their odds for about a year with an incredible attitude and spirit – and naturally, he documented everything." Morrow said she last saw her friend in February at a send-off party for Geri Migielicz. "He looked great. We even had a dance together to some old Sinatra song."
Vaughn-Lahman joined the Mercury News in 1981 after working for the Arizona Daily Star, where he was chief photographer, and after working as a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, the Columbia (MO) Daily Star, and interning at National Geographic and the St. Petersburg Times. He won the Robert F. Kennedy Award in 1981 for a freelance essay he shot that was published in the Escondido (CA) Times-Advocate about the plight of immigrants making the dangerous journey across the desert from Mexico to seek a better life in the States. The photojournalist was a graduate of Ohio University in Athens and did his graduate studies at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He first joined NPPA in 1997.
During his time at the Mercury News, photography director Michael Malone said that Vaughn-Lahman 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 9/11 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."
Malone first met Vaughn-Lahman when Malone was a photojournalism student at San Jose State University in 1981. "He processed and printed an on-spec sports shoot I was offering to the Merc. He then introduced me to David Yarnold, who was then the director of photography. To find myself working with Len years later was a dream come true. Another thing about him that I'll always remember was how smart and worldly he was. I was constantly amazed how he always knew about seemingly everything going on around the globe, at all times, all the more amazing for someone who didn't own, much less watch television. He subscribed to The Economist, for goodness sake ... and he actually understood what he was reading. We spent many a morning talking about what he'd read, him breaking it down in layman's terms for me."
An online portfolio of the photojournalist's work can be seen here.
Vaughn-Lahman is survived by his wife, Sharon; daughter Lisa; brother Bruce Lahman; and mother and father, Mary and Lyle Lahman. Plans are pending for a private celebration of the photojournalist's life later this month.