Posthumous Presentation of Thomas Hart Benton Medallion to Michel duCille

Media School Distinguished Alumni Awards Banquet
Presidents Hall
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
September 25, 2015

Introduction

Thank you very much, Gena [Asher].

Laurie and I are very pleased to be here tonight to help honor the recipients of this year’s Media School Distinguished Alumni Awards. It is particularly a pleasure to be here in Franklin Hall, where extensive renovations are now underway that will transform this historic building into a magnificent new home for the Media School.

I am also very pleased to add my welcome to all of the distinguished alumni who have joined us this evening, including a number of former recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award. Needless to say, we are tremendously proud of the accomplishments of all of our graduates. Your achievements not only reflect on Indiana University, but they are an inspiration to the aspiring students in IU’s Media School and beyond.

Honoring Michel duCille

It is also a great pleasure to be here this evening to honor the life and the remarkable career of one particular alumnus—the late Michel duCille.

Michel was among the inaugural class of recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Awards, which were established in 2011 in conjunction with the centennial celebration of the School of Journalism.

And so, before we recognize this year’s recipients, in light of his untimely passing in December while on assignment in Liberia, it is fitting that we take a few moments to honor Michel this evening.

It has been said that photojournalism is the medium of urgency and social change. Michael’s career illustrated this in a profound way.

Michel duCille was one of the world’s most eminent photojournalists. His work, as you will see in a video tribute in a few moments, received three Pulitzer Prizes and brought the attention of the nation and the world to the aftermath of natural disasters, the horrors of war, the effects of drug addition and disease, and the shameful subjection of wounded American soldiers to neglect and squalid living conditions.

Michel was born in Kingston, Jamaica. He credited his love of photography to his father, who worked as a newspaper reporter in Jamaica and the United States.

Michel came to Indiana University as an undergraduate student, arriving with nothing more than a suitcase and a passion for photography. He did not even have a camera. The late Will Counts, who would go on to become one of Michel’s mentors—as would Professor Emeritus John Ahlhauser—gave Michel one of his cameras.

Michel worked at the Indiana Daily Student alongside Tom French, who is here tonight, and who, of course is also a Pulitzer Prize winner and who now serves as Professor of Practice in the Media School. Tom and Michel remained lifelong friends. Michel was also a loyal friend to Indiana University. He returned to campus a number of times to meet and work with students and to lecture in Professor French’s class. He also served on the School of Journalism Advisory Board.

Introduction of Video

Now, I direct your attention to the screens for a video portrait of Michel duCille.

[A short video plays.]

The Impact of Michel's Work

That gives you a sense of the enormous impact of Michel’s life and his work.

Of course, the photo essays for which he won Pulitzer Prizes were only part of his powerful and influential body of work.

He documented, for example, the civil war in Sierra Leone—a war that was described at the time as “the world’s cruelest, as well as its most invisible.” Michel and a Washington Post colleague drove for two days through the Liberian forest with a number of Charles Taylor’s child soldiers to report on the horrible atrocities being perpetrated by members of the Revolutionary United Front.

He also photographed the “Marsh Arabs” as they returned to their homes in southeastern Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, who had systematically attempted to annihilate their 5,000-year-old culture.

He was embedded with the Afghan army in 2013, where he documented close combat firefights with the Taliban, medical evacuations, and a makeshift morgue at Kandahar Regional Military Hospital.

Michel truly was a citizen of the world. He travelled the globe, including at least eight visits to Africa, to cover various stories.

A Washington Post colleague, Joel Achenback, wrote of Michel: “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.”1

But the enormous impact of Michel’s work was not limited to his photography in the field. He also served in management roles at the Washington Post—as a photo editor and director of photographer—over a period of about 20 years.

His friends and colleagues remember him not only for his journalistic talent and professionalism, but also for his empathy, his compassion, and his humility.

Presenting the Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion

Tonight, I am very pleased to honor Michel’s remarkable career by posthumously presenting him with Indiana University’s Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion.

First given in 1986, the bronze medal features a representation of a portion of Thomas Hart Benton’s murals depicting the “Social and Industrial History of Indiana.” The State Legislature commissioned the murals for the Indiana exhibition at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Benton’s travels throughout Indiana for nearly six months to view the society and culture of the state before he began painting were very much in the spirit of Michel’s travels around the world to observe and document various people, cultures, and events.

The majority of the Benton murals are now located in the Indiana University Auditorium, with additional panels in the IU Cinema and Woodburn Hall.

The reverse side of the Benton medallion features the Seal of the University. It symbolizes the aspirations and ideals that are the foundation of the search for knowledge.

I am very pleased that Nikki Kahn, Mr. DuCille’s widow—who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist herself—was able to be with us tonight to accept the Benton Medallion on behalf of her late husband. I invite her to join me at the podium at this time.

Nikki, Indiana University takes great pride in Michel’s life and career.

And so, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the trustees of Indiana University, in recognition of your late husband’s noteworthy achievements in photojournalism over a nearly four-decade-long career, and in gratitude for all that he did to bring the world’s attention to humanitarian crises ranging from war in Sierra Leone to the Ebola epidemic, I am privileged and honored to posthumously present the Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion to Michel duCille.

Source Notes

  1. Joel Achenbach, “Photographer Michel du Cille: ‘This is What We Do,’” The Washington Post, December 12, 2014.