His friends and colleagues knew Michel du Cille, the many-laureled Washington Post photographer and editor, only as Michel (pronounced “Michael”). But at a memorial celebration Friday afternoon, they learned that the name was shorthand. Du Cille’s full given name was Michelangelo.
And like the transcendent Renaissance sculptor and painter, du Cille, who died last month of a heart attack at age 58 while covering the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, was hailed as an artist who captured timeless images of human emotion and struggle in his way — through the lens of a camera.
“A great man, a great artist with a lovely soul,” said Donald Graham, former chief executive of The Washington Post Co. Graham, now chairman of Graham Holdings Co., quoted a tribute written by a student of the original Michelangelo: “The great ruler of heaven looked down and, seeing these artists’ attempts, resolved to send to Earth a genius. He further endowed him with true moral philosophy and a sweet, poetic spirit so the world would marvel.”
Du Cille’s memorial at the Newseum in Washington was by turns solemn, spirited, spiritual, humorous and musical. Friends, colleagues, relatives and even a contingent from du Cille’s college newspaper at Indiana University filled the 450-seat Newseum auditorium to overflowing. It was multicultural and multiregional, drawing people from around the country and from Jamaica, du Cille’s birthplace.
Du Cille’s daughter, Lesley Anne, played a vibrant violin solo in her father’s honor. Leighton, his son, described du Cille as “a quiet man who spoke loudly with images he shot,” as well as a closet Trekkie who binge-watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” In a loving e-mail exchange with his son about his photos from West Africa, du Cille wrote shortly before he died: “My work is a calling to me. I hope it makes a difference.”
Before he set off on his final assignment, du Cille texted his love to his wife, Post photographer Nikki Kahn, and enthusiastically wrote, “Africa, here you come!” Said Kahn, “If he were here today, he’d be reminding us of the real story: 8,429 lives lost to Ebola and counting. He’d be saying, ‘Remember the real story. Remember the thousands of people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and the rest of the world who are dying and will die from this Ebola virus.’ ”
The most eloquent tribute may have been a wordless one: a slide show of du Cille’s photos over the decades.
The people depicted included the famous — President Obama, the late Post editor Ben Bradlee, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks — and the decidedly not famous — drug addicts in filthy surroundings, Ebola patients awaiting death, militiamen (and women) in Sierra Leone, disabled American veterans.
Some of the latter photos won du Cille the third of his Pulitzer Prizes for photography in 2008, for a Post series that documented neglectful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District. He also shared a Pulitzer in 1986 with fellow Miami Herald photographer (and future Post staffer) Carol Guzy for photos documenting a volcanic eruption in Colombia, and in 1988 for images of crack-cocaine addicts in Miami.
Under a projection of a smiling du Cille — carrying a camera, naturally — photojournalist Donald Winslow announced that du Cille would be the posthumous recipient of the National Press Photographers Association’s annual Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award, the group’s highest honor.
Winslow was among those at the memorial who had worked with du Cille on the Indiana University student paper. He recalled du Cille’s meticulous work habits even as a college journalist. Assigned to produce photos of a campus worker in a manhole, du Cille returned to the office with four film rolls of the man.
Longtime colleague Joel Achenbach, who worked with du Cille at the Herald and The Post, recalled his friend’s gentle spirit. While at the Herald in the 1980s, Achenbach and du Cille went to Jamaica to report on the aftermath of the murder of reggae superstar Peter Tosh. Venturing into Trench Town, the Kingston neighborhood that is the birthplace of reggae, they encountered a menacing character who demanded $500 for access to Tosh’s friends and associates. Achenbach deferred to du Cille, who sweet-talked the man out of his demand.
“Michel liked people,” Achenbach said. “This is not something you always associate with journalists. The takeaway is, let’s like the people who share their stories with us.”
The Rev. Kenny Irby, a pastor in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that du Cille “was committed to shining a light in dark places.” In a rousing speech-cum-sermon, Irby — a photojournalist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism-education organization in St. Petersburg — noted du Cille’s fearlessness in wading into war zones, drug dens, natural disasters in Haiti and Colombia, and the West African Ebola crisis.
“He was committed to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” Irby said.