Photo editor Joe Elbert worked with Michel du Cille for 27 years, a relationship that began unforgettably when du Cille arrived at the Miami Herald as a photography intern in 1980:
“He showed up the weekend of the McDuffie riots. I gave him a beat-up camera, the only one we had in the lockup, 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.”
Our friend and colleague Michel du Cille, who died Thursday in Liberia on assignment for The Washington Post, had a much-laureled career as a shooter and photo editor, and those of us who knew him and loved him are paging through our memory albums and reminding ourselves of his talent, courage, professional integrity and personal grace.
He was an old-school photographer who knew you had to get close to your subjects — and then get closer still. He was deliberate and methodical. He would not be rushed. He had to get it just right. He did background research, studied the lay of the land, listened to people, earned their trust, took his time and aimed for nothing short of perfection.
Journalism can have a parasitic quality sometimes, with the reporter or photographer plucking information and images from people’s lives and re-purposing them for the glory of a great narrative. That’s not what Michel did. He cared about the people he photographed. Empathy and compassion came naturally to him and proved to be a powerful journalistic asset. So did humility.
Post reporter Emily Wax: “In Congo once, he turned to me on a long car ride and said that if he lived in Africa, he would have ended up being one of the guys at an intersection selling socks. It stuck with me not because of fatalism or lack of opportunity of desperately poor countries, but because even with all of his Pulitzers and talent, he was able to see himself in all of his subjects, and he was a great photojournalist because of it.”
Lenny Bernstein, the reporter who accompanied Michel on two trips to Liberia this fall, said: “Michel wasn’t just a photographer, he was a reporter and writer and a brilliant student of people. He worked and schmoozed until he gained entry to the places he needed to be to get his shots.”
Longtime friend Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute said of Michel: “He was the metric that generations of African American photojournalists measured themselves against. He possessed a unique blend of compassion, creativity and courage. His three Pulitzer Prizes affirmed his journalistic prowess, and yet his humility as a human being seemed rare.”
Dudley Brooks, a Post photographer, said: “There was a certain righteousness that he kind of carried with him with his work. It was never just ‘get the photograph.’ It was about how to correctly interpret the story. The journalist part of him was just as important to him as the photo part. He was uncompromising about making sure the story was told correctly.”
This philosophy carried over into his work as a photo editor. “He didn’t tolerate mediocrity,” Brooks said.
In September 2008, Post photographer Jahi Chikwendiu drove four hours from San Antonio into the face of Hurricane Ike as it was coming ashore in Galveston, Tex. Everyone else had evacuated in the other direction. I was safely hunkered down in a fortress-like hotel on the beach.
I thought it was insane for Jahi to try to drive across the causeway to Galveston in a howling tempest at night with all the power out and the water rising in the bay. I called Michel and said that he needed to tell Jahi to turn around. It’s just too dangerous, I said.
“Listen to me,” Michel said. “This is what we do.”
I wasn’t the only person he said that to. He said it to Lenny in Liberia:
“On the first day of our first trip, I couldn’t believe how casually he would saunter up to dead bodies in a pickup truck or on the ground to get his shots. I stayed far away, not yet comfortable with the realities of reporting this story. ‘You have to understand,’ he told me, ‘This is what we do. This is what I have to do.’ ”
And this is what Michel did, always, whether he was covering the tragic aftermath of a volcano in Colombia (his first Pulitzer, shared with fellow Miami Herald photographer Carol Guzy), or hanging out for months in a crack-cocaine-infested apartment building (Pulitzer No. 2), or tramping through West Africa to document the Ebola catastrophe.
These trips to West Africa produced an incredible array of images, evidence of a photographer who was not resting on the glory of having won three Pulitzers (his third was for the Walter Reed series about veterans returning from the wars).
“When Michel and I were embedded with the Afghan army in 2013, a firefight broke out a few feet in front of us,” recalls Post foreign correspondent Kevin Sieff. “I ducked behind a wall, but Michel barely flinched. He picked up his camera and somehow looked almost serene amid the chaos. A soldier was shot and rushed away in a wheelbarrow, and Michel got as close as he could. Even if it meant taking risks, he wanted the story to be told — and told well — out of respect for the people we were covering.”
They later visited a morgue, a gut-wrenching scene in which bodies and body parts were prepared for burial.
“I peered in for a few seconds at a time while the bodies were washed. It was the most I could stomach. Michel stood inside the morgue, right next to the bodies and the caretaker, for almost an hour. I have no idea how he did it. When he finally walked out, Michel described how the caretaker worked — slowly, compassionately, as if the men he was caring for were still living.
“Listening to him, I realized that his work wasn’t just about taking the right series of photos. It was about understanding how people lived and how they endured even the most unimaginably bad circumstances. He pushed himself harder than anyone to gain that understanding, and it always paid off.”
Steve Coll, a former Post managing editor who is the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, remembers working with Michel on a magazine story about the civil war in Sierra Leone.
“We flew into Monrovia and ended up driving through the Liberian forest for two days with some Charles Taylor gunmen in order to get to the base camp of the Revolutionary United Front. It was the rainy season and these clay roads undulated, and at the bottom of every dip there was a huge mud lake that you had to plow through. Our crazed gunmen drivers, who were basically teenagers, took it as a challenge to gun down the hill and through the mud each time, and each time they failed. So we would have to get out and up to our waists in mud try to rock the jeep out.
“Michel was such a cool customer. He just got into the mud and rocked — part of the job, as it were. We eventually made it into Sierra Leone, hung out at the camp of the group that was chopping people’s arms off, then traveled with them as close to Freetown as they could get, until we ran out of safe territory for them. We had no way to get the other 100 kilometers on the road to Freetown because it was warlord territory. So we had to call Peter Harris on the foreign desk and ask him to charter a helicopter to come pick us up in a soccer stadium in Makeni. It cost $10,000. Those were the days.
“Michel and I were together on this phantasmagoria for about 10 days, and he never broke a sweat, couldn’t have been an easier partner, slept soundly, never raised his voice or worried unduly about getting back. And, of course, the photos he took made the story 10 times over. The power of his work across so many years just astounds me. And from such a quiet, balanced man.”
Obviously, Michel was good company, and he was also a great chef, recalls Michael Cottman, who, along with reporters Neil Foote and Charles Whitaker, lived with Michel in Miami when they were all young journalists:
“Few folks knew that Michel, with his Jamaican roots, was quite a cook and a stickler for serving meals on time. Michel was the chef of the house and always made his staple: Jamaican peas and rice. But he could never cook for just four people and always made enough to feed a small island nation, so Neil Foote coined the phrase ‘peas and rice for life,’ which stuck for decades. Du Cille would laugh for hours, but he still kept cooking those peas and rice.
“Michel always wanted to serve a hot meal. He would call me at work and say, ‘Michael, come straight home; I’m cooking’ and would often scold me for stopping at Burger King before dinner. Sometimes he would check to see if there were any crinkled hamburger wrappers in the trash — evidence of a snack violation. ‘You didn’t eat already, did you?’ du Cille would ask me, already knowing the answer, while serving us heaping plates of peas and rice.”
I ran with Michel in those days, too, for we were both assigned to the Miami Beach “Neighbors” bureau of the Herald, bombing around a news paradise where the stories were as plentiful as palm trees. When the artist Christo came to town in 1983 to wrap Biscayne Bay’s islands in pink plastic, that was our story, requiring us to loiter at the Carlyle Hotel on Ocean Drive late into the night with hordes of out-of-town hipsters. It was not a hardship posting.
Our work lives and personal lives had no boundary. I was 21 and he was 26 and the skies were always blue and a breeze always at our back. What a stroke of luck — to learn the craft of journalism alongside Michelangelo Everard du Cille.
In 1987, we went to Kingston, Jamaica, to cover the aftermath of the murder of musician Peter Tosh. Michel served as tour guide, cultural interpreter, and when we visited the newspaper the Daily Gleaner, he momentarily took on the role of journalism rock star. The Jamaicans were proud of their native son.
We also went to Trench Town, in those days a rough part of Kingston. The community leader was extremely displeased to hear that we weren’t going to pay for interviews. CBS News had paid when they visited. Michel calmed everyone down by promising, as a personal favor, to send some blank recording tapes to the would-be Trench Town musicians after we got back to Miami. And sure enough: When we got to Miami, he put together a care package and sent it back to Kingston. The completion of a story didn’t end his relationship with his subjects.
Emily Wax recalls that as they traveled in Africa, covering wars and conflict, children would say to Michel, “White man, take my picture.” Michel would answer: “I’m a black man and Africa is my homeland. But yes, I will take your picture.”
They traveled together for months, staying in cattle camps. He’d get up at 4 in the morning to take photos of the Sudanese working with their herds. He’d bring her fresh milk for her instant coffee.
“He also knew how to appreciate the moments off,” Emily said. “He once insisted we go see the beautiful beach in Sierra Leone where a Bounty candy bar commercial was filmed. We ate fresh fish on the beach, and for a few minutes, we healed from all of the war we had seen after six weeks of reporting on suffering.”
Michel was truly a citizen of the world.
“Words cannot begin to explain what an impact his recent work in West Africa has had on the world’s response to the Ebola epidemic,” Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday in an e-mail to The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron.
Michel’s death is being mourned today in West Africa. On Friday, Lenny received an e-mail from the Cape Hotel in Monrovia:
“On behalf of The Cape Hotel family (Mr Ghassan, Mr Anwar, Mr Greg and all staff), we profoundly regret the sudden and untimely death of our brother and friend Mr. Michel du Cille. To his family & the Washington Post staff we sincerely share your grief and sorrow.
“We will forever remember him for his many sacrifices to the people of Liberia.
“May his soul rest in peace.”