Michelle Agins ’77 delivered the 2019 commencement speech and received an honorary degree from the university.

This article appeared in The Magazine of Dominican University (November 2019)

Relationship and Influence

At the heart of Dominican University, and Rosary College before it, is relationship—between students, faculty, staff and sisters; and between students themselves. These relationships have the potential to influence students far beyond their years at the university. As evidenced by the alumnae profiled in the following article, the Dominican difference has the power to ignite lifetimes of activism and the desire to share with others the values instilled in them as students.

Michelle Agins ’77 - Refusing to be Defeated

The camera became her bridge, transporting Michelle Agins 77 from her childhood home in Bronzeville to the pinnacles of journalism— and role model status for a new generation of trailblazers. She has photographed presidents, hitched rides on Air Force One, witnessed the destruction of war, and changed lives by recording, in intimate detail, the struggles of the less fortunate. She’s worked at the New York Times for 30 years, covering the Oklahoma City bombing, the devastation of 9/11, a coup in Haiti and racial strife in America. To attain her level of success, which includes a Pulitzer Prize, she not only had to be really good, she had to overcome the barriers and hostility that persist for black women in the media industry. “The deal is, I refuse to be defeated,” she told Dominican undergraduates in an extraordinary commencement address this spring. Now, she is helping young reporters and photojournalists of color blaze their own trails. The following interview has been edited into a first-person narrative. 

I grew up in Bronzeville in the mid-60s. My neighborhood was electric. Other times it was sad. I saw all sides of it, from the day that Dr. King was killed to happier times like the Bud Billiken Parade. My mother died when I was eight, and my grandparents stepped up and raised me. To cheer me up, my grandmother gave me a Brownie camera and told me to go out and take beautiful pictures for her—which I did.

This is a little corny, but I used to watch “Superman” on TV and thought Jimmy Olsen, the Daily Planet photojournalist, was so cool. So, with my camera and one of my grandfather’s hats, I used to run around my neighborhood shouting, “Press!”

In high school, I worked as a copy girl and photo intern at the Chicago Daily News. With the first money I made, I bought a police radio and went out to fires and police calls to take pictures for the paper. But after college, when I went back to the paper seeking a job, with my degree from Rosary and my portfolio, the photo editor told me, ‘We know your work, but let’s be real honest: Not today, not tomorrow, never. We haven’t even hired our first white woman as a staff photographer.’

What he and others didn’t realize is that I would find mentors—angels—almost as if they had been assigned to guide me on my journey. People like Bob Black and John H. White, both award-winning photographers at Chicago dailies, and my Rosary professors, who nurtured my innate but very raw potential and gave me the confidence that would carry me to places around the world.

In 1983, while working for the city of Chicago, I was appointed personal photographer to Mayor Harold Washington, who didn’t think he needed me. But I told him, ‘I am documenting the life of the first black mayor of Chicago, for the children of the city of Chicago. This is history. You are history.’

After his first term, I returned to journalism and took a job with The Charlotte Observer, where my first assignments included covering the new NBA franchise, the Charlotte Hornets, and NASCAR racing. But what really changed my life was when they sent me to cover the 1988 Democratic National Convention, where I met a New York Times photographer. A few months later, I got a call from The Times offering me a job. I thought it was a joke. I’ve been there for 30 years now.

We won the Pulitzer for a series in 2000 on “How Race is Lived in America.” I was teamed up with reporter Don Terry to explore the challenges he faced growing up biracial. There is so much hate out there. I mean, I knew it was out there, but I had never been that intimate with it. But what made me hopeful was Don Terry’s courage in putting his personal story out there in The New York Times as a way of helping other people going through what he did.

I’ve been on my path now for over 40 years. I’ve seen and done amazing things. Of course, there were many obstacles and setbacks. But I always managed to find a way around them, because when I needed them the most, my angels, my mentors, my friends, and colleagues appeared to help and show me the way forward.

My goal now is to help students avoid the obstacles I faced. I’d like to advocate for more journalists of color. The world is diverse. When we cover the news, it should be a mirror. We have to understand what different communities are going through by using the voices of representatives of those communities.

I now tell young photographers to be on the lookout for their own angels and let them guide you—and fight to be taken seriously.