This article originally appeared on the website of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
In October 2012, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation left its home of more than three decades in Century City and moved to a new campus in Agoura Hills, thirty miles to the north-west of Los Angeles. To mark the occasion, we held a celebration for our staff and partners on the first day in our new offices.
Someone suggested hiring a photographer, but we didn’t have any contacts in our new hometown. My colleague, Maggie Miller, mentioned that her wedding photographer lived nearby. We took a chance, called him up and he accepted with enthusiasm.
That day marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship between our tightknit staff and Michael Brannigan, which came to a sudden end last Friday, when he was identified as the pilot in a local plane accident.
Michael had a rare gift: not only was he a remarkable photographer; more importantly, he was a genuine “people person.” As part of onboarding our new staff, we take everyone’s photo and post it on our website. Michael took photos of all 70 staff members currently working at the Foundation, as well as a dozen more who have since moved on to other organizations. Typically, my colleagues would treat the occasion much like they would a dentist’s visit. I would smile and tell them not to worry, because I knew they would step outside to meet Michael. Five minutes later, they would walk back in, laughing, with Michael in tow.
Most recently, just a couple of weeks ago, Michael took a group photo of our board of directors. We didn’t know if we could make it happen until the very last minute. With his usual aplomb, he didn’t bat an eyelid. Instead, he went hunting for the best possible light. I’d seen him do this dozens of times and it never ceased to amaze me. As an amateur photographer myself, I thought I understood the importance of light, but Michael showed me that it is an art form. My colleague, Marge Brownstein, told me that he was fond of saying, “When you walk into a room, find the light.”
On this occasion, he found a tiny sliver of shade on our patio. We placed a few chairs and took a couple of test photos. With our precious patch of shade disappearing by the second, we gathered our directors and took a few shots. After months of planning, it was over in two minutes. This was one of the last photos Michael took.
When I saw the first photos he took at our opening day celebration in 2012, I realized he was special. He captured a quality in my colleagues that I’d never seen in print before. He shot them when they were unguarded, catching something of their soul. As we sat there, reviewing photos, I confided in him how difficult it was for us to obtain high-quality photos of the programs we fund—in particular, homelessness, foster youth and substance use prevention—because of the sensitive nature of the work. My colleagues and I had struggled for years to find photos that expressed hope rather than despair, solutions rather than problems. We knew that the people we served were best positioned to tell their own stories, in words and pictures, but it was hard to find good shots that honored their achievements. Michael immediately offered to help.
We started with an initial project for the Alliance for Children’s Rights, one of our partners in the foster youth sector. They generously offered to coordinate a shoot with some of the teenagers they serve. Working alongside my colleague, Emily Skehan, Michael bonded with the teens, sharing stories about his own adolescence and connecting with them as individuals. The day was an unqualified success. Back at the Foundation, we were all blown away by the photos.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Michael changed the way we illustrate our work. Whether on our website, on our social media platforms or in print publications, his photos have helped tell the stories of those we serve—from formerly homeless people living in supportive housing to at-risk youth and Catholic sisters. He was always enthusiastic about our mission to improve the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged people throughout the world, and constantly sought out ways to help us and our partners. He even continued to work with organizations like the Alliance for Children’s Rights on his own time, forming relationships that lasted for years and impacted the lives of countless people in Southern California.
In addition to being a wonderful photographer, Michael was an avid pilot who never missed a chance to take to the skies in his single-engine Cessna. Last week, we were dismayed to hear that his plane had crashed near Ventura. While we mourn this terrible loss to our community, our hearts go out to his wife and two teenage children during this very difficult time.
Michael was one of a kind. We are grateful for the time we had with him and will remember him for years to come through his photos which will continue to speak for him. In the meantime, as he walks into this new room, we know that he will find the light.
All photos courtesy of Michael Brannigan