02/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EST
PEOPLE Contributing Photographer Taro Yamasaki, 42, was on the alert for danger when he traveled to Nicaragua for the lead story this week on children caught in the cross fire between the contras and the Sandinistas. "As we drove through the countryside, I watched our driver scan the road for signs of land mines and glance up into the hills for a possible ambush," Yamasaki says. "It was not your most relaxing ride." While photographing Domingo Jimenez, a 14-year-old boy who lost a leg when a truck carrying 52 people hit a land mine last October, Yamasaki heard gunfire in the distance. But the most upsetting moment for Yamasaki occurred far from the war zone, when he visited young victims at Vélez Paiz hospital in Managua. "Walking into the hospital ward was frightening," he says. "I wanted to put down my camera and just hold the kids in my arms and tell them, 'It's all right. It's all right.' But it will never be all right."
"Taro is a gentle and honest man," says Picture Editor Mary Carroll Marden, who chose Yamasaki for the Nicaraguan assignment because of his sensitivity. "He would never take a cruel or mean picture." His knack for putting people at ease has been evident in assignments ranging from a story about Cybill Shepherd and Don Johnson (June 17, 1985) to a memorable article by Senior Writer Ron Arias about poor children who succeed despite daunting obstacles (Oct. 26, 1987). Says Arias, who again teamed with Yamasaki for this week's story: "I love working with Taro. When we hit the streets, we think alike."
A native of Detroit, Yamasaki inherited an artistic sensibility from his late father, Minoru, the renowned architect who designed the World Trade Center in New York. After dropping out of the journalism program at the University of Michigan in 1968, Taro worked as an assistant kindergarten teacher, a cab-driver and a carpenter while struggling to launch a career as a photographer. A project photographing migrant workers confirmed for Yamasaki that photojournalism was his calling, and in 1977 he landed a job at the Detroit Free Press. Four years later he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of photographs of inmates at the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, the nation's largest walled penitentiary. "Sometimes I went inside without protection by the guards so the prisoners could be more open with me," Yamasaki says.
Now a busy free-lance photographer, Yamasaki lives outside Detroit with his second wife, Susan. As the father of three children—daughter Shantih, 16, and sons Seth, 8, and Takei, 6—he felt a special responsibility to bring home honest pictures of the children whose lives have been shattered by the war in Nicaragua. "As we drove away from Vélez Paiz hospital, my tears were streaming," Yamasaki says. "Those children are so innocent. They never pointed a gun at anybody. They have no idea of politics. They just happened to be standing in the way of the bullets and bombs."