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Photojournalist Michel Du Cille Chased The Tough Stories


Some weeks ago, I opened The Washington Post over breakfast, and I couldn't look away from a photograph. It was a little girl wearing a bright dress with teal, lavender and pink flowers. Her eyes were closed, her mouth pursed and her face streaked by a thick trail of tears. Out of focus, a man tried to console her. She had recovered from Ebola. Her parents had succumbed to it. It was taken by Washington Post photographer Michel du Cille, a three-time Pulitzer winner. Du Cille died yesterday of an apparent heart attack while working in Liberia. Washington Post staffers came together today to celebrate du Cille, and we reached Managing Editor Kevin Merida just after that gathering. Kevin Merida, thank you for joining us. And I'm so sorry for your loss.

KEVIN MERIDA: Thank you, Audie. It's been a tough day, but we came together in part to just not only remember him but to continue to be inspired by him.

CORNISH: Now, Michel du Cille died while covering the Ebola story. He was 58 years old. And he had always worked in very difficult environments, but talk about why he wanted to go to West Africa?

MERIDA: Well, you know, Michel always said that, you know, all lives matter. And he wanted to show the humanity and the struggle there to overcome and cope with this crisis. And he didn't want the world to forget about it. He pushed us to cover it aggressively. And he was there three times, and he just kept wanting to come back. And the work he did was just amazing. It's some of the most amazing work of his career, which is saying a lot because it's been a remarkable career.

CORNISH: Tell us a little bit about his style. I don't know if there is a photo you can describe that you think kind of captures the tone of his work or of his approach.

MERIDA: Well, it's interesting because there was a photograph that was part of the Ebola package, and it was a woman laying down kind of in a town square surrounded by two chairs. And they were kind of book ends. And it was a way of marking a body that had died of Ebola so that everybody could see it and therefore not get near it. And it was just so remarkable. It was just there and life is going on around it. And there's this body and these two pieces of wood. And it was just - he saw everything, and he spent time watching. And the camera was not, you know, just an instrument for him. He sometimes put it down. It was more important to kind of let people understand who he was and for him to learn about them before even taking photographs.

CORNISH: Another one of his well-known assignments was the investigation into Walter Reed Military Medical Center. Can you talk about how he approached that work and getting people to trust him - what it sort of told you about his personality without the camera?

MERIDA: You know, I think that's one of the myths out there is that there are writers and then there are photographers, and that the photographers are kind of, you know, adjuncts. But they're very much part of the total package of journalism. And Michel was very instrumental in winning trust and cooperation with those veterans. And he was the kind of person that is easy to talk to because he had such humility and he had such common touch even though he was this really decorated photojournalist. He didn't wear his awards on his sleeve.

CORNISH: We mentioned earlier that people at the Post were gathering to remember him today. Kevin Merida, can you tell us a little bit about what people were saying?

MERIDA: Well, it was so emotional. And many people, including myself, had a difficult time holding it together. It was beautiful in a lot of ways. You know, Scott Wilson, our deputy national editor, was talking about how here was a guy who, at this stage in his career, went after the toughest story. You know, he covered Afghanistan during the war. And there was a firefight, one of our foreign correspondents said, and he ducked behind a wall. And Michel picked up his camera. So he was doing this kind of work late in his career after already being decorated. Many journalists who are as decorated as he is or, you know, trying to take it easy, maybe taking a Dial chair somewhere, but Michel wanted to still work. And he went after the most difficult stories that are out there.

CORNISH: Kevin Merida, thank you so much for speaking with us and talking with us about Michel du Cille.

MERIDA: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Washington Post Managing Editor Kevin Merida remembering Post photojournalist Michel du Cille. And here we have Michel du Cille in his own words from a Washington Post video from last year. In it, du Cille explains why he felt it was important to photograph times of crisis. In this case, the War in Afghanistan.


MICHEL DU CILLE: I just think it's exceedingly important to continue to show readers what war is like and what it is that we as human beings keep repeating over and over again. And there are many out there who keep going for the option of war without really understanding, without really realizing, without really having experienced what real war is like. The only way that we can go forward and understand what terrible things war does is to show it.

CORNISH: Photographer Michel du Cille, a three-time Pulitzer winner. He died yesterday while on assignment in Liberia of an apparent heart attack. He was 58 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.