Alumnae/i Spotlight: Michelle Agins

michelleagins.jpgFor more than two
 decades, Michelle Agins
 ’77 has been a staff
 photographer for The New York Times,
 covering “all the news that’s fit to print” whether it’s gritty or glamorous, meaningful or memorable. It’s a job and a career that she dreamed of as a child and began preparing herself for as a teenager. 

Raised by her grandparents on Chicago’s southside, Agins attended DuSable High School, and while working on her school newspaper, she also worked as an intern with the Chicago Daily News and as a freelance photographer for the Associated Press, UPI, The Chicago Defender and Jet Magazine. As a student at Dominican (Rosary College) she honed her craft and skills by helping other students in photography classes and taking photographs for The Reporter student newspaper. 

Energized and inspired following graduation, Agins sought to fulfill her dreams of being a photojournalist in Chicago, only to be told by a photo editor at the Chicago Daily News – in no uncertain terms – that she’d never realize her dream because of her gender and race. 

“It was very discouraging at first, but it set the fire I needed to spirit me forward,” she says. Following a determined and lengthy search, Agins landed a job as a photographer in the Department of Human Services for the City of Chicago and in 1983 was appointed as the personal photographer for Mayor Harold Washington. 

Accompanying the mayor on all official business, chronicling his daily dealings running the city, Agins not only had a front row seat to history in the making, she played a key role in documenting that history. Yet, as exciting and challenging as it was, her desire to be a photojournalist remained strong. In 1987 – just three weeks prior to the mayor’s untimely death – she approached him about her decision to pursue her dream. Armed with his wonderful letter of recommendation, she landed a position with theCharlotte Observer. 

Her work captured the attention of the photo editor at The New York Times and when the call came in 1989 inviting her to interview for an open position. “I was just so stunned that when I called back, I made it a collect call because I couldn't believe it!” she remarks. 

And, though she had hoped 
to return to Chicago, friends reminded her that “you can always come home, but sometimes you need to go away to be recognized, and when The New York Times offers you a job, you take it.” 

Her first years in New York were not quite the thrill she expected, however. One of her first assignments was to cover a volatile and highly publicized rally being held in response to the racially motivated killing in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. As the black and white protesters shouted out from opposite sides of the street, Agins recalls having to literally walk down the middle of the street as she took pictures – 
each side perceiving her as representative of the other. She also covered the subsequent trial, and when the verdict was announced, Agins began to photograph crowd reactions and responses. When she returned to her car for more film, relatives of the man convicted of the killing confronted her and proceeded to beat her so severely that she had to be hospitalized. When they threatened her life if she turned to the police, she was relocated to a new apartment in another borough for her protection. 

The Times and my editors made sure I was protected. They held my hand throughout the trial,” she recounts. “And, when those who attacked me were found guilty and ordered to pay me restitution, I refused it because I didn’t want to have any contact with them ever again.” 

Twenty-one years and countless incredible, memorable experiences later, Agins’ work continues to move and inspire, capturing the attention of readers worldwide. Her assignments, both large and small, have taken her in many directions, her photographs earning her wide acclaim. With two Pulitzer nominations – the first in 1990 for her coverage of the Bensonhurst protests, and then in 1995 for her photographs accompanying the Times series, “Another America: Life on 129th Street” – in 2001 she and her 
colleagues received a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for the series “How Race is Lived 
in America.” 

While Agins was also the principal photographer for a number of books, her favorite assignments, she says, are the human-interest stories. And, as the chief photographer for the annual New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, her artistic 
expression and skill are evident, earning the admiration of her colleagues and many others (See http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/michelle-agins/). 

“Michelle knew she would 
‘be somebody’ and she exuded 
a self-confidence that ‘winners’ tend to have,” Ric Calabrese, professor of managerial 
communications, recalls. 
“She was, however, humble, eager to learn, polite and full 
of the love of learning.” 

As a communications arts and sciences major, Agins credits her favorite professors including Calabrese, Tony LaPietra and 
Sr. Gregory Duffy with inspiring her to learn and being 
influential, positive figures in 
her development. “They totally believed in me. Sr. Gregory was so knowledgeable – she made things relevant and she made me want to learn.” 

She remembers her years at Rosary fondly, recognizing the comfortable fit after transferring to the university at the 
recommendation of a close friend who attended Rosary. 

“I discovered I really wanted a small, intimate setting and my friend told me I’d be great here...she was right. 
At Rosary, they took education seriously and there was a strong family atmosphere that I loved,” Agins adds. “I was focused, but 
I had a lot of fun, too!” 

Her fond college memories include playing on the women’s basketball team, a semester abroad in London and Friday afternoons in Power Hall, turning up the 
music and dancing in the hallways – just a few of the experiences that contributed to her strong foundation for success. 

With her life settled in New York – she owns and is restoring a brownstone in the historically significant Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and is “mom” to her two dogs, Humphrey and Harry – Agins’ ties to her many Chicago-area friends and former colleagues remain strong. Her biography highlights her lifetime membership in the Chicago Alliance of African American Photographers, alongside 
her Pulitzer Prize award and nominations, and participation in the National Association of Black Journalists and the New York Press Photographers Association. 

Agins gratefully acknowledges the individuals who supported her dream to be a photojournalist. 
“I’m fortunate to have had people who pushed me, encouraged me, supported me and believed in me,” she says. And, to the photo editor who told her she’d never work in the news business, well he clearly didn’t know how determined and undeterred Agins was. 

Her talent and her sensitivity, 
as well as respect for her vocation, have contributed to what’s been a fulfilling career. She duly credits Dominican with providing the all-important education from which she could launch her dreams.