Local Obituaries

Michel du Cille dies at 58; photojournalist documented human struggle

Michel du Cille
Michel du Cille WASHINGTON POST

Michel du Cille, a Washington Post photojournalist who was a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his dramatic images of human struggle and triumph, and who recently chronicled the plight of Ebola patients and the people who cared for them, died Thursday while on assignment for The Post in Liberia. He was 58.

He collapsed while returning on foot from a village in the Salala district of Liberia’s Bong County, where he had been working on a project. He was transported over dirt roads to a hospital two hours away but was declared dead on arrival of an apparent heart attack.

Du Cille won two Pulitzer Prizes for photography with the Miami Herald in the 1980s and joined The Post in 1988. In 2008, he shared his third Pulitzer, for public service, with Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull, for an investigative series on the treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“Michel had returned to Liberia on Tuesday after a four-week break that included showing his photographs at the Addis Foto Fest in Ethiopia,” Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said in a statement to the newspaper’s staff.

“We are all heartbroken,” he continued. “We have lost a beloved colleague and one of the world’s most accomplished photographers.”

Du Cille served as The Post’s director of photography and as an assistant managing editor for several years before returning to the field as a full-time “shooter,” the job in which he always felt most comfortable. He was renowned among journalists for his ability to look inside a crisis and find enduring portraits of sorrow, dignity and perseverance.

His assignments often took him to places of strife and deprivation, from Sudan to Afghanistan, where he came under fire in 2013. He covered civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s before returning to west Africa this year to cover the Ebola outbreak.

In Liberia, du Cille wore full-body protective gear and operated his cameras through heavy rubber gloves. He photographed the stricken patients, but he also managed to convey the emotional toll of the disease on victims’ families.

“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. … But I believe that the world must see the horrible and dehumanizing effects of Ebola.

“The story must be told; so one moves around with tender care, gingerly, without extreme intrusion.”

Du Cille was unwillingly thrust into the public debate surrounding Ebola when Syracuse University in New York state rescinded an October invitation to speak to photojournalism students. He had undergone a voluntary 21-day monitoring period for Ebola and showed no signs of having the disease.

In his Post article, he said he was “angered” by the decision, which he called “a missed opportunity” for students.

“Especially now,” he wrote, “I am cognizant of what I could have told them — about the power and necessity of capturing images that interpret the human experience while daily life unfolds under the cloud of Ebola.”

Earlier in his career at The Post, du Cille spent months covering the tragedy of the treatment of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Priest, a Post reporter assigned to the Walter Reed investigation, was initially concerned that a photographer, carrying cameras and other equipment, might “scare away the soldiers and families who were risking a lot to talk to us.” Instead, his friendly manner put sources at ease, and many began to ask for him on subsequent visits

“I remember introducing him to a skittish soldier whose room he had to talk himself into to document the black mold growing on the walls,” Priest said. “We were at a restaurant, and 10 minutes into the conversation, the two of them were talking like long-lost friends. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone else like him. He was so gracious and patient with people, and so thoroughly loved what he was doing.

“His love for journalism rubbed off on me and his colleagues.”

Michelangelo Everard du Cille was born Jan. 24, 1956, in Kingston, Jamaica. His father was a minister in Jamaica and became a journalist after the family moved to Georgia in the early 1970s.

Du Cille was 16 and still in high school when he began his photography career at the Gainesville Times in Georgia. He had internships at the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Miami Herald before graduating from Indiana University in 1981. He received a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio University in 1994.

He joined the Herald’s photography staff in 1981 and won his first Pulitzer — which he shared with Carol Guzy, who also later moved to The Post — for coverage of a volcano eruption in Colombia in 1985.

Two years later, Du Cille spent months photographing life inside a crack house in Miami, capturing the drug’s devastating effect on a community. His work earned him a second Pulitzer, this time for feature photography.

The editor on the project was Gene Weingarten, who later became a two-time Pulitzer-winning writer at The Post.

“After a couple of weeks,” Weingarten said, “I asked him how the shoots were going. He said, ‘No pictures yet. I haven’t taken my camera. First comes trust, then the work.’”

Du Cille joined The Post as a photo editor in 1988 and became known not just for his unerring eye through the lens but also for his keen ability to observe talent. He recruited many of the paper’s photojournalists and oversaw The Post’s photographic coverage of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

He helped advance the paper’s photography into the digital age, with the developing of online galleries and other ways of displaying visual content on the Web. He was instrumental in shooting and producing The Post’s monumental 2006 series, “Being a Black Man” and became a mentor for African American and other minority photographers throughout the country.

“He was a courageous witness and a powerful storyteller,” said Kenny Irby, with the Poynter Institute in Florida. Irby, who had known du Cille for 35 years, said he brought those traits to his assignments and was known for “giving” voice to the voiceless and preserving the dignity of those who were in his viewfinder.

Late in his career, du Cille continued to take on demanding assignments around the world. After surviving a bout with cancer and two knee replacements, he “jumped at the opportunity” to cover the war in Afghanistan in 2013. He and Post reporter Kevin Sieff came under fire in a region controlled by the Taliban.

“Our rest was brief, as sounds of unrelenting gunfire suddenly began,” du Cille wrote in a first-person account. “It seemed so very, very close, and it was. The [Afghan] commander, Col. Mohammed Daowood, sprinted past with a pistol in his hands. I began to follow him. Moments later, Sieff said, “We need to take cover … and get your helmet back on.”

Du Cille’s first marriage, to Christine Clarke, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of five years, Post photographer Nikki Kahn; and two children from his first marriage, Leighton du Cille and Lesley Anne du Cille.

In his October article about covering the Ebola crisis in Africa, du Cille wrote about the anguish he felt when the only help he could offer was through his camera.

Writing about the sister of one Ebola patient, he said: “She asked me questions that I could not completely understand and could not answer. …

“To me, her eyes said, ‘This is the end.’ I looked at her and said, ‘You know she is very, very sick.’ She said, ‘Yes, I know.’ As I tried to continue our fruitless conversation, my voice broke and suddenly tears came involuntarily. By then, more patients arrived by ambulance and I resumed taking photographs.”

Emily Langer, Mary Pat Flaherty and Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.

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