Michel du Cille, 58, Dies In Rural Liberia

Michel du Cille, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist for The Washington Post, died today in remote Liberia.
Michel du Cille, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist for The Washington Post, died today in remote Liberia.

UPDATE: There will be a celebration of Michel du Cille's life on Friday, January 16, 2015, at 2:00 p.m. at the Newseum in Washington, DC. Following the event there will be a reception at The Washington Post in the Post's Community Room. The National Press Photographers Foundation has begun a fund in du Cille's memory, and contributions can be made here.


By Donald R. Winslow

BONG COUNTY, LIBERIA (December 11, 2014) – Michel du Cille, 58, a photojournalist for The Washington Post who has been covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, collapsed and died today in rural Liberia while hiking back from a remote village.

According to Post reporter Justin Jouvenal who was with du Cille, the photojournalist was transported for two hours over dirt roads to a hospital. He was unconscious during the travel, the Post says, and had difficulty breathing. The speculation is that he may have suffered a heart attack. At the hospital he was declared dead. 

Du Cille had returned to Liberia on Tuesday after a four-week break from covering the deadly virus. He had been taking time off in Ethiopia and this past weekend he was at the Addis Foto Fest in Ethiopia with many other photographers, including Magnum's Eli Reed. 

"I am in shock," Reed said tonight from Ethiopia. "Michel worked hard to capture with compassion the joys, the tribulation, and of course the sorrows of his fellow humans. We just talked about his experience in Liberia and other things that matter. I told him how much I admired his work on Ebola. He participated in a special panel on Ebola at the African Union, and he was overcome with raw emotion about what he had seen and experienced in Liberia. I had to wipe the tears out of my eyes then, just as I am doing now. He could not wait to get back to Libera so that he could continue his work there. A good man has passed. May God bless and take care of him in the next room, where we all go eventually."

Many of du Cille's close friends were well aware of the fact that within the past few years he valiantly battled and defeated multiple myeloma bone cancer, enduring chemotherapy and treatments as the cancer went into remission. More recently du Cille had knee replacement surgery. The work in Liberia was strenuous and much of it on foot, and this was his third rotation into Liberia this autumn to cover the outbreak.

Du Cille had spoken by phone within the past week to his friend Kenny Irby at The Poynter Center, discussing Du Cille doing a master class for the center. Irby is a Poynter senior faculty member and director of community relations, as well as being a minister and du Cille's longtime friend. Irby told du Cille that he thought he sounded tired. Du Cille, who is still on the mend from his knee replacement, assured Irby that he was fine and just needed some of his friend's solid spiritual encouragement. He asked Irby to pray for him and for his wife, Post photographer Nikki Kahn. At the end of the conversation, Irby said, du Cille's last words to him were, "Kenny, you have buoyed me."

"Michel's death is sending shockwaves across the country," photojournalist and du Cille's college classmate and longtime friend Dean Rutz said from The Seattle Times. "In part, because he was doing some of the best and most courageous work of his life, and in part because those of us who had seen or talked with him recently saw a tremendous vitality in him. A life force returned that had left him when he battled cancer, changes at the newspaper, changes in his own career. Now, suddenly, he was at his apex again. Happy, seemingly healthy, and in complete command of his destiny."

Rutz and du Cille were roommates in college at Indiana University, and Rutz was at The Palm Beach Post when du Cille was at The Miami Herald. Later, du Cille was at the Post and Rutz was across town at The Washington Times.

"I've never seen him with a greater clarity about his life than I have these past few months. He had a mission and he saw it so clearly. There was absolutely no one who was going to stand in his way. He was a wonderful man, and I loved him very much."

"It is extremely hard to imagine that we will never see Michel again," C. Thomas Hardin told News Photographer magazine tonight. Hardin was the photography director at the Louisville Courier-Journal when du Cille was a photo intern from Indiana University. Now Hardin is president of the National Press Photographers Foundation (www.nppf.org).

"That's where we first saw Michel's heart," Hardin said. "He had a willingness to share, to help others, and a commitment to perfect his skills. Over the years he recognized the photograph's power to communicate while setting a public agenda. He produced so many stories, so many telling photographs that detail life's condition around the world and in his backyard. Sadly we won't see him again, but his life endures through his wonderful photographs and his legacy of compassion."

Du Cille's coverage of the Ebola epidemic was the first-person cover story of October's issue of News Photographer magazine. Returning from that trip he was disinvited from speaking at Syracuse University because of the school's leadership's fear of potentially exposing students to Ebola (despite the fact du Cille had reached the 21-day clearance period, and the day before the Syracuse event he had been with the CDC's director in Atlanta).

Du Cille, who could raise the room's temperature when he sensed injustice was afoot, was quite angry by the school's decision. Lorraine Branham, the school's dean, offered du Cille an opportunity to come back to Syracuse at some future date to discuss not only his Ebola coverage and Liberia, but also the school's decision to cancel. Tonight from Syracuse a faculty member said that du Cille had recently been working with them to plan an Ebola seminar for this coming Spring semester, and that du Cille intended to be a part of it either in person or online from Liberia. 

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron tonight said, "We are all heartbroken. We have lost a beloved colleague and one of the world’s most accomplished photographers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Michel’s wife and fellow Post photographer Nikki Kahn, and his two children [from a previous marriage]. Michel died doing the work he loved. He was completely devoted to the story of Ebola, and he was determined to stay on the story despite its risks. That is the sort of courage and passion he displayed throughout his career. He earned three Pulitzers, but his reward was in his mission as a journalist. He was an eloquent witness to history, and he told the story of humanity – moments of joy and moments of struggle against overwhelming tragedy. We will deeply miss this man of soaring talent and limitless passion."

Du Cille won three Pulitzer Prizes during his career, two for photography at The Miami Herald and one at The Washington Post. In Miami he shared his first Pulitzer with Carol Guzy for their coverage of the deadly Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia. His second Pulitzer at The Herald was for a documentary picture story about crack cocaine addicts living in a public housing project, which was published in The Herald's Sunday magazine, Tropic. Then in 2008 he shared his third Pulitzer Prize with Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull for their investigative series on the horrible treatment of military veterans being treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

From the beginning, those of us who attended Indiana University alongside du Cille at the School of Journalism  [myself included] knew that he had a deep moral compass and an innate sense of fairness and justice. No matter how tired or pressed, he always had time for young students or his friends. His laugh was deep and genuine, as was his Jamaican anger when mistreated. His photographs, early in black-and-white then later in color, were distinctive, clear, iconic, uncluttered and concise. As an editor or a photographer or during his stint as the Post's photography director, he knew how to pick his own work and the best work of his peers - and he knew how to fight for it to be used properly in print.

(Above: Michel du Cille gave high-fives to coaches and faculty when he graduated from NPPA's Multimedia Immersion Workshop last May at Syracuse University. Photograph by Eric Seals)

Du Cille was a graduate of Indiana University's School of Journalism as an undergraduate and Ohio University's School of Visual Communication for his master's degree. For VisCom, he studied in Scotland earning a master's of science in journalism with an emphasis in visual community.

Du Cille was a longtime NPPA member, workshop leader, and mentor. He joined NPPA in 1981, almost 33 years ago, and he was a board member of the National Press Photographers Foundation, currently serving as its Secretary. In 2000 du Cille served on NPPA's board of directors as the Board Representative, and in 2002 he was presented with NPPA's Morris Berman Citation along with the NPPA President's Medal.

Nikki Kahn, du Cille's wife, who is also a staff photographer at the Post, has said that those who may want to make a donation in memory of du Cille might consider donating to the National Press Photographers Foundation (www.nppf.org), where du Cille was a board member and the current national secretary. NPPF supports student scholarships and other honors and awards. Contact NPPF president Tom Hardin at [email protected] for more information.

Here is the Post's first story tonight on du Cille's death. 


In the October issue of NPPA's News Photographer magazine, this is what du Cille wrote about Liberia and Ebola in his first-person account:


EBOLA: Michel du Cille in Liberia, where the Outbreak Outraced The Global Response


Life And Death In The Time Of Ebola

Story and photographs by Michel du Cille

In more than 40 years as a photojournalist I have taken pride in offering dignity to the subjects I photograph, especially those who are sick or in distress while in front of my camera. But my recent photographic assignment to cover the Ebola outbreak in Liberia proved exceedingly challenging. Respect is often the last and only thing there is that the world can offer to a deceased or dying person. Notwithstanding my presence at the scene with a camera, it becomes almost too perplexing and it is hard to show that necessary respect. The camera itself seems to be a betrayal of the dignity I so hope to offer. Sometimes the harshness of a gruesome scene simply cannot be sanitized. How does one give dignity to a woman who has died and is lying on the ground, unattended, uncovered, and alone as people walk by or gaze from a distance? But I believe that world must see how horrible and dehumanizing are the effects of Ebola; the work must be done. So one moves with tender care, gingerly, without extreme intrusion.

It is exceedingly difficult not to be a feeling human being while covering the Ebola crisis. Indeed, one has to feel compassion and above all try to show respect.

During one of the most emotional encounters I faced in Liberia, I photographed a family who accompanied a very sick woman who seemed near death as they sought treatment. Eva Togbah was bleeding from the mouth and her breathing was shallow. She was not ambulatory. (Seen at right.) As the husband, a sister, a brother, and a friend descended from the van, each was covered with large plastic bags around their hands, feet, and bodies, urgently trying to protect themselves from Ebola with their makeshift coverings. They knew this was the only way to get their very ill relative to the Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) Ebola Treatment Unit.

Waiting outside the unit’s gates was a given, but to the anxious family the one-hour wait must have seem far too long to them as the patient worsened. At one point I approached the woman’s sister, who had secluded herself against a wall away from the others as her sister faded away in the van. I asked her how long her sibling had been sick. She said about one week. She asked me questions that I did not completely understand, nor could I answer. As we tried to speak to each other, both of us not fully understanding the other’s dialect, our eyes spoke volumes. 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. I walked away leaving the sad woman to her solitude while I regained my composure. The sick woman was eventually admitted to MSF for treatment. But I presumed she was already too far gone. Later I was not able to confirm my worst assumptions about her condition. 

Existence in Liberia is far from normal during the Ebola crisis. As life moves to the hectic African pulse the Ebola virus continues to kill, seemingly at a faster pace. As the virus continues to devastate thousands, in Monrovia government offices (including the Executive Mansions) are closed. Yet people still move about their daily lives as if all is normal. The Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare is the only government office currently functioning. They are the local authority responsible for eradicating the Ebola virus. 

By October 15, the World Health Organization’s Ebola Response Report counted 4,493 deaths and 8,997 cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Spain, and the United States. The figures do not include an Ebola outbreak in the Health Presbyterian Hospital nursing staff in Dallas who attended to Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who died of the virus in mid-October.

Although the Ebola crisis has nearly crippled the Liberian economy, affecting businesses and day-to-day life, the streets remain choked with heavy traffic. Old vehicles with smoke blowing from the exhaust maneuver around giant potholes and deep puddles, a result of the heavy West African rainy season. Barefoot children in shorts race up to cars at intersections hawking assorted items like candy, chewing gum, cream biscuits, plastic bags of water, and windshield wiper blades while everybody seems to ignore traffic laws. 

The government offers no buses or any kind of public transportation. The only feasible options are small yellow taxicabs, motorized rickshaws, and the ever-present motorcycles (of which most are not road worthy). These motorbike-taxis that scurry into crowds and dash around traffic have become such a public nuisance that locals refer to them as “suicide.” They are banned from some downtown Monrovia streets because of their wanton recklessness. Every taxi option, in which they carry far too many passengers and where people are in very close contact with each other, has been debated as one way in which the Ebola virus may be spreading. The motorbike taxis often carry three or even four passengers at a time. Often these taxis are the only way people with Ebola symptoms can make it to the Ebola Treatment Units, which increases the potential spread of the virus.

Monrovia is by the Atlantic Ocean on Africa’s West coast. Vibrant street markets line the motorways in the Liberian capital. All are open for business, even during the Ebola crisis. Most vendor stalls are simply large beach umbrellas, and music seems to blare from every stand.

During Monrovia’s rainy season, which locals joke lasts six months of the year, the sky is gray by day and the nights are pitch black, leaving visitors asking, “Where is the moon?” The ocean provides magnificent views from most high points in the city. Although locals walk and enjoy being at the beaches, few Liberians will swim there. Residents say the canals and rivers flow raw sewage and garbage into the ocean.

The New Kru Town section of Monrovia has been hit hard by the Ebola virus. Burial crews, in protective suits, are so overwhelmed that bodies of people who have died from Ebola often lay on the ground for long periods of time – even at the doorsteps of Redemption Hospital. The hospital, which is now closed to daily health concerns, only receives Ebola patients. It is used as a holding and transfer facility for suspected and confirmed Ebola cases. When it is full, those who show up must frequently wait outside, lying on the ground or sitting for hours in an ambulance where they often eventually die. No one can approach or touch the bodies without protective gear. Health professionals say that the Ebola virus is the most contagious when the host has died. Subsequently, bodies lay for hours before teams wearing protective suits can retrieve them.

In Monrovia the Ebola dead are cremated, but in rural counties far away burial is still the only way. Health workers in protective gear bury the dead who are placed inside plastic body bags. They lower the body into the grave using simple strips of white cloth; then leaning over, a couple feet down, they have no choice but to simply drop the body down the rest of the way into the six-foot by four-foot by six-foot deep hole. There is no coffin, no ceremony, no family or friends. The authorities have decreed this method to prevent the future spread of the virus during burial. 

West Point, a bustling Monrovia slum of 70,000, looks like one giant market filled with dozens of small shops and vendor stalls. Here life moves like a chaotic dance with ordinary people who call it home. The shacks, stalls, shops, and houses are indistinguishable from each other. Startlingly, people line up body-to-body for food handouts from the United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP), blatantly ignoring the call from government health authorities not to touch each other for fear of spreading the virus from close contact.

Irony is no stranger to the state of things in West Point. When a Liberian magisterial judge in a small courtroom was trying to arraign a man and woman accused of grand theft, the man vomited while handcuffed to the woman. Suddenly, the court was cleared and the couple was isolated as an ambulance was called to the scene. After spraying down the two accused thieves and the surrounding area with a chlorine solution, health workers dashed off with the duo in an ambulance headed for the Redemption Hospital. As the vehicle with siren blaring arrived outside the treatment facility, the doors opened and the two immediately took flight, running away down the street, escaping their earlier certain fate of a Liberian jailhouse.