Hysteria or proper precaution — a conversation with Michel du Cille
Kenny Irby interviewed Washington Post photographer Michel du Cille about his work in Liberia covering the Ebola virus, but before we get into his work, we will address Syracuse University's decision to disinvite the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner from its S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications Fall Workshop.
Each side stands firm that they were considering what would be best for the students on the campus of Syracuse University.
Last Thursday, du Cille had “cleared the 21-day monitoring window for Ebola and was symptom free,” when Syracuse officials told him not to come to the journalism workshop.
It is “pandering to the hysteria of ignorance,” said du Cille. “The most disappointing part of this bad decision is the disservice to the fine journalism students at Syracuse's Newhouse School. What a missed opportunity to teach future media professionals how to seek out accurate hard facts; backed up with full details about the Ebola crisis,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Lorraine Branham, Dean of S.I. Newhouse, told Poynter via email that what du Cille “has not made clear in his criticism of us is that he was not coming to Syracuse to show his work from Liberia or discuss the Ebola crisis. If he were, I might acknowledge that my students missed something -- that would have indeed have been a missed opportunity. But this workshop had nothing to do with Liberia or Ebola. He would have critiqued portfolios and reviewed student work.”
For Branham, the decision was more about the general greater good of the university then her personal position. Branham told local media on Friday that if it were just about her she would welcome him into her home for dinner and not fear for her safety.
“This was a tough call but I still believe it was the right one for us,” said Branham. “We did not make this decision lightly. We did so after talking with health officials and local medical doctors who suggested we exercise ‘an abundance of caution.’ A primary concern for us was the issue of the incubation period. While du Cille had not shown any signs of infection by the 21st day -- the same day he was schedule to visit Syracuse -- we knew that some people have a longer incubation period.”
The issue of how long the incubation period lasts is an open question, said Branham, who sent articles to back up her claim, including one from The Washington Post.
Poynter: How and when were you informed that you were being disinvited to the Syracuse workshop?
Du Cille: I flew in from Atlanta and headed up to Cap Hill to photograph Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Thomas Frieden at a noon hearing. Got a text from home to call Bruce Strong.
Poynter: Was Nikki, your wife, disinvited as well? (Nikki Kahn is also a photographer with the Washington Post)
Du Cille: By the time I received a phone call from Bruce Strong the SU University leadership had already been in direct meetings before directly discussing with me…It seemed they did not want hear debate from me. Both Nikki and I were disinvited.
Poynter: Why do you think that the hysteria around potential Ebola contamination is so high?
Du Cille: It is a number of things. The mistakes centered around early control of the virus; the mounting deaths in West Africa; the misinformation by some of our own media colleagues; an irrational hysterical public; And I'll have to say there is a great deal of xenophobia especially, from political leaders.
Poynter: What alternatives might you have offered if given a voice in the process?
Du Cille: I would have offered to speak publicly about what I saw; offered personal detailed accounts on how the disease spreads. I simply would have offered the University an option to present an informational public forum. There had to be better ways to deal with their fears.
Poynter: How did you draw the Ebola assignment in Liberia?
Du Cille: I volunteered. I love working in West Africa and thought the Ebola story was historic. I didn't want to miss it.
Poynter: Tell me about your research and preparation for this assignment.
Du Cille: This was my fourth trip to Liberia. I had great familiarity with the people and region. I also read everything I could find about Ebola.
Poynter: What precautions were you able to take in advance of your journey?
Du Cille: Beside the normal medical prevention vaccines and meds, I consulted with photojournalists who had recently been there: John Moore and David Gilkey, both had just finished rotations. They advised me to get Tyvek suits, good gloves and masks, rubber boots. They warned that vigilance on washing hands and spraying was critical. But I also read everything I could find on how to get out of the suits to prevent contamination.
Poynter: Tell me about your biggest challenge will covering this story. Was it physical or mental?
Du Cille: It was mental ... I believe that the world must see how horrible and dehumanizing are the effects of Ebola. After eight trips to the African continent, I never tire or complain about the harshness of life. To me each journey there is an almost spiritual experience. I guess partly because I relate so well to the West African way. Growing up in Jamaica was very much the same; the cadence, body language of the people are pretty very similar.
Poynter: Was there a similar story that prepared you for such a risk?
Du Cille: No, nothing in my 40 years as a photojournalist was ever like this.
Poynter: Were there other international journalists covering this story?
Du Cille: Yes, but not the usual hordes. It is expensive and dangerous.
Poynter: How did you care for yourself and your gear during this assignment?
Du Cille: Vigilant cleaning and spraying with chlorine solution. The new Liberian handshake is elbow-to- elbow bump and no touching of any kind.
Poynter: Tell me about the frame of mind of the people that you met at the church on that Sunday morning?.
Du Cille: Strangely they were upbeat and almost normal. I expected sadness and emotion. I think after years of war and struggle, Liberians just focus on survival.
Poynter: What's your most vivid memory now that you are back in the U.S.?
Du Cille: Sadly, I photographed a very ill woman who I presumed was too far gone. She was bleeding from the mouth. That situation really touched me. Her family arrived with their arms, feet and torso wrapped in plastic. They seemed so desperate. (Du Cille wrote a piece about the photograph for News Photographer, which will appear in its next edition. )
Poynter: How did you prepare for the multimedia requirement and what gear did you use most?
Du Cille: I did Instagram as much as I could and a small amount of video with my Nikon gear.
Poynter: Do you have any advice based on your lessons learned for visual reporters as the coverage continues?
Du Cille: Yes. Don't go if you are not prepared to take the risks. It is different from bullets and guns. A simple dab to wipe your eye could get you infected.
Correction: Previous versions of this story spelled du Cille's last name inconsistently.