Alumnus, Pulitzer winner Michel du Cille dies while on assignment

The Media School Report • Dec. 12, 2014
Michel du Cille
Alumnus Michel du Cille died Thursday while reporting in Liberia. The three-time Pulitzer winner spoke to students in Ernie Pyle Hall in January. (Caitlin O’Hara | The Media School)

Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michel du Cille, BA’85, died Thursday while on assignment in Liberia for The Washington Post. According to the Post, du Cille died of an apparent heart attack after hiking from a remote village where he was covering the Ebola epidemic.

Du Cille was among the first class of alumni to receive journalism’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011, and he had visited Ernie Pyle Hall as recently as January, when he was one of the speakers for the Behind the Prize series.

After graduating from IU, where he had been an Indiana Daily Student staffer, he began his career at The Miami Herald and won his first Pulitzer in 1986 with photographer Carol Guzy. They were awarded the spot news prize for coverage of the eruption of Nevado Del Ruiz volcano in Columbia.

Du Cille’s second Pulitzer, in feature photography in 1988, was for his photo essay on crack cocaine addicts in Miami.

In 1988, du Cille moved to The Washington Post, where he won his third Pulitzer in 2008 with writers Anne Hull and Dana Priest for exposing the mistreatment of wounded military at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Du Cille told Newswire, the journalism alumni magazine, that this last Pulitzer, for public service, was the most meaningful. The series resulted in congressional hearings and reforms in the care of injured soldiers.

Du Cille became director of photography at the Post in 2007, but he decided to return to full-time photojournalism in 2012. He was committed to covering the Ebola epidemic on the front lines. In October, he wrote a column for the Post titled “Documenting with dignity in the Ebola zone,” expressing his belief in the necessity of covering subjects readers might find abhorrent.

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

Du Cille has been an enduring friend of IU Journalism, said department chair Bonnie Brownlee, serving on the journalism alumni board and returning several times to meet and work with students.

Michel du Cille
Michel du Cille recently wrote the importance of covering tragedies and the effects on journalists. (Courtesy photo)

“Michel du Cille has been a loyal supporter of his school, and his work has inspired all of us, faculty and generations of students,” Brownlee said. “His death leaves us all in great sorrow and, at the same time, in gratitude for the light his work has shone on so many of the important national and global issues of our time.”

He visited campus earlier this year as part of professor of practice Tom French’s Behind the Prize class and was planning to speak to the class again next semester.

French and du Cille worked together at the Indiana Daily Student, where du Cille was photo editor, and remained friends for the past 30 years. French said du Cille displayed a “ferocious talent,” even as an undergraduate.

“At the IDS, he was on fire with his passion for journalism and for photography,” he said.

“It’s a devastating loss. Michel was one of the greatest photographers the world has seen. Even more than that, he was one of the most big-hearted, compassionate and genuinely decent people you’ll ever meet. He touched so many lives and shined a light on so many hard things in this world, and he was a wonderful friend to Indiana and to our students.”

Du Cille also had visited in 2011 to speak during the program’s centennial celebration and as one of three alumni photojournalists who were part of the Will Counts Memorial Lecture. At both events, du Cille praised his IU mentors, longtime photojournalism professor the late Will Counts and Professor Emeritus John Ahlhauser.

Counts’ widow, Vivian Counts, has kept in touch with du Cille, as had her husband before his death in 2001.

“Michel was loved by my whole family and both of my children, Bob and Katie, were really saddened to learn he is gone,” she said. “Will loved him and was so proud of him.”

She recalled that du Cille arrived at IU with only a suitcase, not even a camera. He desperately wanted to “shoot pictures,” she said, and her husband gave du Cille one of his cameras.

“At Will’s retirement celebration, Michel said he was disappointed that Will didn’t receive the Pulitzer Prize he deserved, so he would share one of his with Will,” Counts said. “It’s hard to believe this lovely man won’t be with us any longer, only in our hearts and our wonderful memories.”

Former School of Journalism dean Trevor Brown knew du Cille as a student and, later, as a member of the school’s advisory board.

“IU’s School of Journalism has educated and inspired many extraordinary journalists, and Michel’s marvelous accomplishments make him a fitting companion in stature with one of its greatest alums,” Brown said. “Ernie Pyle and Michel du Cille are exemplars of the equality in power of words and images in storytelling and truth-telling, especially when, as Michel relentlessly insisted, they are thoughtfully combined.”

Current journalism professors recalled their meetings with du Cille and his influence on the profession.

Professor Steve Raymer met du Cille during the coverage of the Colombia volcano in 1985.

“I was in awe then as a National Geographic photographer, as I am today, at Michel’s single-minded dedication and persistence to get the picture of suffering and human tragedy, and to do it with compassion and sensitivity,” Raymer said.

Associate professor Jim Kelly said du Cille was a kind and gentle man who made people feel as if they mattered.

“He treated people with the utmost respect—even people who few others seemed to respect at all,” Kelly said. “And by doing this, he gave them their dignity and they gave him their story. Then he told that story honestly, powerfully and beautifully. He was a great journalist.”