Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014

When students arrive for their news writing final, they learn the name of the person they’ll write about. They have a few minutes for research before they interview the subject of their profile. They write their stories and file them on deadline. The three-hour exam is a legitimate, real-time test of their journalism skills.

This year David Gilkey joined the class via Skype from Florida, where he was on assignment. Gilkey is photojournalist and video editor at National Public Radio, who has covered a broad range of stories, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The students peppered Gilkey with questions about his background, career and his personal life. They focused on his recent coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Wait a minute. Hold on, Gilkey said, at one point in the interview. The students watched as he removed his earphones. He paused, looked up toward the ceiling for a moment, then put the earphones back and returned to the interview.

Was that breaking news or a phone call? I asked. A phone call with news, Gilkey replied.

Gilkey completed the interview and gave the students his email address and responded to questions they had during their final. He stayed in contact with the students for the full three hours.

After 45 minutes, most of the students broke away to begin writing their stories. I opened my computer and read that Michel du Cille, a Washington Post photojournalist, had died of an apparent heart attack in Liberia at the age of 58.

I must have gasped or blurted something. A student looked up. Are you OK, Professor Hatch?

Yes, thanks. Focus on your work. I’ll explain after the exam.

I sent Gilkey a text.

He told me that the call he’d taken during the students’ interview was from Nikki Kahn, du Cille’s wife, also a Washington Post photojournalist, telling him that his friend and colleague had died.

All the students hit their 10 p.m. deadline. A number stayed late and read du Cille’s obituary posted online. We discussed his work and commitment to it.

Du Cille had received three Pulitzer Prizes for his photography, two while at The Miami Herald and one at The Washington Post. He was known for his compassion and his big heart.

“He was renowned among journalists for his ability to look inside a crisis and find enduring portraits of sorrow, dignity and perseverance” wrote Post reporter Matt Schudel.

Most recently, du Cille had focused on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where he had covered the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.

In an article in the Post in October, du Cille wrote about his experiences.

“Sometimes, the harshness of a gruesome scene simply cannot be sanitized…But I believe that the world must see the horrible and dehumanizing effects of Ebola. The story must be told; so one moves around with tender care, gingerly, without extreme intrusion.”

On Sunday night, my phone dinged with a message from JR Ancheta, a friend and former student. We’d worked together in Afghanistan.

Happy Solstice.

He sent a message with a photo of a surfer silhouetted against a lavender sky tinged with flamingo pink clouds. Returning to shore, the surfer had his board tucked under his arm, the water a band of brightness and sparkles around him.

JR was at his family home in Sitka, Alaska, when he noticed the light. He grabbed his camera and dashed to the water’s edge.

JR had been through some tough times lately. Making the dash for sunset light, photographing the twilight moment reminded him of the joy and reverence he has for photography—and the beauty that surrounds us.

It’s really easy to get stuck, JR said. The world is full of nastiness, muckiness, ugliness. We forget to see. Forget to look. Forget to find beauty.

Looking. Seeing. Finding those little snippets of beauty everywhere. Photographers find beauty in the nastiness and muckiness.

It’s a gift, JR said.

Then he surprised me with a gift.

“Thank you for teaching me to watch the sunsets—and the sunrises,” JR said.

My first column this year was about Dave Martin, an Associated Press photographer, who died on the job, at 59, of an apparent heart attack. In April, I wrote about another AP photographer, Anja Niedringhaus, assassinated in Afghanistan. She was 48. And, in my last column of 2014, I remember Michel du Cille, who died covering a story and people he cared deeply about.

Photojournalists and journalists know the risks and accept the dangers of covering a some stories. We open our eyes and our hearts to the suffering and the beauty in our world. We witness and return to bear witness.

To quote Michel du Cille: “This is what we do.”

We give our hearts—and sometimes our lives.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/giving-hearts-and-lives-to-bear-witness/article_180de8f2-8d59-11e4-b1f4-0f9521438772.html

 

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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