The friends and colleagues of Michel du Cille are in shock. They simply can’t believe that the photographer with the deep voice and the gentle soul is gone. He died on Dec. 11 of an apparent heart attack while covering the Ebola crisis in Liberia for the Washington Post.
Ben de la Cruz, visuals editor for global health and development at NPR, worked for du Cille at the Post. We asked him to share his memories of the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner.
How did you first encounter du Cille?
Through his images. When I joined the Post in January 2000, [the paper] was featuring his photography from Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the Civil War. He did a photo essay in a camp for people who had amputated limbs [which had been hacked off during the conflict]. This kid is walking down the street of the camp with crutches. The sunlight is in back of him, there’s an orange glow. For me, this photo symbolized the plight of the kids.
A picture like that could seem exploitive. I take it this one did not.
Michel was all about gaining the trust of people and presenting these people with dignity. There’s this quote I was reading last night from [Washington Post editor] Gene Weingarten. Du Cille was doing this story about this community in Miami. After two weeks Weingarten asked him, “How’s the shoot’s going?” And du Cille hadn’t even taken out his camera yet. He said, first the trust and then the shooting.
So he didn’t just parachute in and start taking pictures.
You don’t get access to anything, you don’t get those intimate moments, unless you have the trust of the people. He was able to have such a long, illustrious career because he really cared about the stories and the people in them.
What was he like as a boss?
He had a tough exterior. When you were called into his office and he looked at you with a poker face, you weren’t sure what he was going to say. He always spoke in this slow, deep voice that gave gravitas to everything he said. But he had an infectious laugh and a great smile. I’ll always be grateful for getting the chance to learn from him.
What did you think of his coverage of Ebola?
He was fearless. He showed people lying in the street not able to get into the hospital. He went into Redemption Hospital, where it’s clearly dangerous [because of the Ebola patients] and showed the conditions that people are in: crowded rooms, people lying on mattresses. It doesn’t look like a modern hospital because it isn’t. I think his pictures really bring it home: This is why it’s so hard to control Ebola.
How would you describe his photographic voice?
He tried to capture emotion. The reason people see his photography as impactful is because there is that emotion that connects us, that humanizes the subject and story.
The Post interviewed him about photography and he said he’s from the old school: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, is what he said. And I thought, that’s a good way to think about it.