California Forum

A photojournalist’s mission: ‘This is what we do’

Women who were among 15 Liberian patients who recovered from Ebola cry as they greet family members after their release from a treatment unit in Monrovia, Liberia, on Sept. 24, 2014.
Women who were among 15 Liberian patients who recovered from Ebola cry as they greet family members after their release from a treatment unit in Monrovia, Liberia, on Sept. 24, 2014. The Washington Post

Michel du Cille’s quiet passion is powerfully conveyed in the photographs of his subjects. Dozens of stories over the last week have emphatically described him: extraordinarily empathetic, a witness to history, a brilliant student of people, with professional integrity and personal grace. All true.

Photojournalism’s friend and role model, du Cille, died Dec. 11, doing what he loved: documenting a story so we could better comprehend the human condition. He died in Liberia while on his third assignment covering the ravages of Ebola for The Washington Post. He was hiking back from a remote village when he suffered an apparent heart attack. He was 58.

I met Michel in 1986 when I was an undergrad at Indiana University. He had returned to his alma mater to speak to photojournalism classes after winning his first Pulitzer Prize at The Miami Herald with photojournalist Carol Guzy for their images of the aftermath of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano eruption in Colombia, which caused an estimated 25,000 deaths.

Two years later, we met again when I invited him to speak at a photo seminar following another Pulitzer for his photographs of the Graveyard, an apartment complex that was home to crack addicts in Miami. Inexperienced students were in awe of his work, and he became our role model.

Michel was humble and lived by the journalistic ethic: comfort the afflicted by honestly telling their stories. Preserve their dignity through respect and sensitivity.

His third Pulitzer was for public service in 2008 with Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull, for their stories on the treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. See the pattern here?

We stayed in touch over the years through photo conferences and gatherings. When I was director of The Kalish workshop, a visual editing workshop at Ball State University in Indiana, Michel offered invaluable moral support.

There are so many stories, and many are literally war stories. When reporters questioned his running toward the danger, he was known to calmly explain what photojournalists do: “Listen to me. This is what we do.”

And he did it superbly.

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