Michel du Cille’s former colleague remembers the day the three-time Pulitzer Prize photographer learned his trade by fire.
“Michel arrived at the Miami Herald as an intern on the day of the McDuffie riots and went out into Liberty City and ended up photographing a car wreck where a little girl was injured and lost one leg and it was very hard on him,” said retired photojournalist Mary Lou Foy, who worked with du Cille at the Herald and later at the Washington Post.
“His mother had died in the last couple months and here’s this kid, still wet behind the ears, and bam! He gets some of the worst stuff going.”
Through some of life’s worst moments — and its most newsworthy — du Cille captured the humanity through his lens. The Washington Post photojournalist died Thursday while on assignment in Liberia chronicling Ebola patients. He was 58.
According to the Post, du Cille collapsed after a strenuous hike. He was transported over dirt roads to a hospital two hours away but was declared dead on arrival of an apparent heart attack.
“Michel, you can’t say too much good about him,” Foy said. “He just really was a fine man and had it all. Love in his heart and a dedicated photojournalist who wanted the truth to be known.’’
Washington Post photo editor Joe Elbert was in the same position at the Herald when he sent the eager intern out onto the Miami streets in May 1980.
“I gave him a beat-up camera … and he took off and disappeared for two days covering the riots. I told people, ‘I think I killed the intern, and he’s not even starting on the clock until Monday. What do I do?’ He surfaced two days later with these really incredible pictures where he’d gotten into Overtown and Liberty City,” Elbert told the Post.
Bill Cooke recalled when the two were on assignment in October 1986 — Cooke freelancing for The Associated Press, du Cille working for the Herald — when members of the Yahweh religious sect took over an Opa-locka apartment complex. Two of the residents were shot and killed.
“I remember having an exchange with somebody but Michel, he was just, ‘Calm down. We’ll get through this.’’’
Pulitzer-winning Miami Herald photographer Patrick Farrell, whose work was featured with du Cille’s in an exhibition earlier this year of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos at Florida International University’s Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum, believes that is one reason du Cille excelled.
“He showed that kind of eagerness to listen and to record,” Farrell said. “I remember in the the late ’80s I was working for the South Dade News Leader and I saw his crack story and I was like, ‘Holy smokes. How did this photographer do this?’ First of all, they were amazing images but how did this photographer get this kind of access and really gain the trust of these people in such a tough situation?”
Du Cille gained the trust of his fellow photographers, many of whom he mentored.
“He wanted young photographers to pass him and I think that’s the biggest contribution he left because that requires a lot of unselfish thought. When I came to the Herald, Mike was one of the few black photographers working and he set the bar up pretty high,” Herald photographer Carl Juste said. “He continued to do the stories most people would say ‘no’ to. He always held the idea that if you are not willing to bear witness, who else would? He was the standard; he was the line.’’
And he wanted to make sure the world saw the communities often overlooked.
“He knew the importance of imagery as it pertained to people of color and under-served communities,’’ Juste said. “If we could be truthful to our message we couldn’t be exploited. I think that’s why he went to shoot Ebola [patients.] It was not to cover a disease but to dismantle myths and taboos. … that takes a strong person.”
Du Cille won his first Pulitzer for spot news photography in 1986 — which he shared with then-Miami Herald photographer Carol Guzy, who also later moved to The Post — for their coverage of a devastating Colombian volcano.
“He was my closest friend; I’m heartbroken,” Guzy said. “We started together as interns and it’s been a long journey.”
On a Facebook post, Guzy wrote, “Beloved Michel du Cille — a man of decency, integrity, dignity and grace. … Michel called from Africa the day my sister passed and expressed regret that he couldn't be here for me. That was the kind of person we all lost.”
In 1988, du Cille won his second Pulitzer in feature photography. He spent months photographing life inside a crack house in Miami on the corner of Northeast Second Avenue and 71st Street, then commonly referred to as “The Graveyard.”
“He would spend days there at this horrible place and he had huge empathy for his subjects. He always put their humanity and their story ahead of what he was doing with his pictures,” said Newsday multimedia producer Chuck Fadely, who worked in the Herald’s darkroom poring over du Cille’s photographs.
In 2008, 20 years after leaving the Herald and joining the Post, he shared his third Pulitzer, with Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull, for an investigative series on the mistreatment of an Iraq war veteran at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Du Cille worked at The Post as an assistant managing editor for several years, battled cancer, and returned to his first love — photography.
Michelangelo Everard du Cille was born Jan. 24, 1956, in Kingston, Jamaica. At 16, while still in high school, he began his photography career at the Gainesville Times in Georgia. He interned at the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky and the Miami Herald before graduating from Indiana University in 1981. He received a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio University in 1994 while at the Post.
His assignments at the Post often took him to places of strife and deprivation, from Sudan to Afghanistan, where he came under fire in 2013, the paper reported. He covered civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s before returning to west Africa this year to cover the Ebola outbreak.
“It is profoundly difficult not to be a feeling human being while covering the Ebola crisis,” du Cille wrote in The Post in October. “Sometimes, the harshness of a gruesome scene simply cannot be sanitized. … The story must be told; so one moves around with tender care, gingerly, without extreme intrusion.”
Survivors include his wife Nikki Kahn, a Washington Post photographer, and two children from his first marriage, Leighton du Cille and Lesley Anne du Cille.
This story was supplemented by The Washington Post. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.