I first met Alex Ghassan in the summer of 2013 when he interviewed for a job at KQED as a video producer. He made me laugh right from the start when, in response to the interviewer’s comment that he would be on assignment in African-American, Latino and other communities of color, he deadpanned, “That’s okay — I’m pretty comfortable with black people.”
Beneath the wicked wit, and sly grin, Alex was whip-smart with an insatiable appetite for the next amazing opportunity, most of which he imagined through the lens of camera. He was always looking for something — something new, yes, but more something that would rock him down deep. I didn’t hire him for the KQED full-time position because we both knew his vision and aspirations weren’t going to fit inside the box of a 9-to-5 job, so he ended up working as an on-call producer for KQED and all kinds of other folks around the country and the globe.
Alex was a brilliant cinematographer, and emerging as a very talented director. He could make the most mundane scene dance and sparkle in his lens. He worked for Spike Lee and countless other producers and executives, and was a master of the music video. He didn’t mince words (Spike had done something back when to piss him off) but neither did he cloak his affections. He once told me about some people whose names he didn’t know in Mexico City who had — for no compensation — helped him scout and style a shoot and then snatched him out of harm’s way when some dangerous stuff went down. When it was over they hugged him and sent him on his way. He loved that, and loved them.
And there were many others along the way. Not least his friend, colleague and fellow Haitian brother Benjamin Michel (“two Haitians and a prayer can conquer the world,” they would say). In Oakland, they seemed to do everything together — shared a home, produced together, partied, laughed. Ben is also an on-call producer for KQED Arts, and calling him early Saturday morning to tell him Alex and his fiancé Hanna were missing in the Ghost Ship fire was one of the hardest phone calls I have made.
Alex was more than a colleague. As we got to know each other, usually over drinks (he seemed impervious to the charms of tequila), we discovered that he was born on the same day, nearly the same hour, not far from the hospital where my son Lucien was born. When I told him Lucien died when he was 10, he stopped and we both sat silently for a second. Then he asked me, actually kind of probed into me, about Lucien’s life, what he loved, how he lived, what he means to me now. Most people, when you tell them your kid died when he was 10, understandably, don’t know what to say. Not Alex, and I will never forget that. After I had satisfied his curiosity (and the dude was always curious: inside scoop, gossip, anything he could pull out of you), he said, “Okay, that’s it. You’re my San Fran daddy and I am your San Fran son. Deal?”
And that’s how it went.
We talked a lot about fatherhood — about my two daughters and two other sons, and his two vibrant, beautiful, blissfully energetic four-year-old twin daughters, Lucy and Alex. Their names were tattooed across his knuckles. They are his pride and his bliss. When he talked about them, he would speak fondly of their mom, Lesley.
Alex and I worked together, me the dad/boss, him the young man, proud and determined. We fought over stuff, mostly creative differences. (He was stubborn and claimed I was impossibly so.) I would try to be of help as he navigated the bumpy road of getting ahead in the world of work. We talked about the slights, the disappointments, the petty insensitivities a black man too often faces in the workplace. But he would never lay it off to race, just human venality. I was too racially minded, he’d say: “Too many people are selfish and mean, it’s true. But here in the Bay, it’s not about race.”
Like I say, we didn’t always agree, but he always made me think.
The last time I saw him was last Thursday night for drinks at the Homestead on Folsom — me, Alex, and his fiancé Hanna. Truly, this lady lit up the room. Charm, smarts, world-traveler savvy, creative vision, beauty and a smile that would stop a train. She grew up in Helsinki where she had her own jewelry design business and so much more than I will never know. What I do know is that she was what Alex was looking for all this time. She rocked him down deep, and I learned over the tequila and the wine that he returned the favor. I watched them glow at each other. Admiration for one another’s work, dreams of travel — and, yes, a wedding date sometime late next year, they coyly admitted. I know Alex found what he was looking for, and Hanna’s excitement for the prospects that lay ahead couldn’t be bottled up, and spilled all over. I was so happy for them. When I dropped them off that night, their last before the fire, I hugged her and thanked her for finding Alex. That’s the last I saw of them, on a dimly lit corner at 40th and Irving in the Sunset. We were all happy.
As with all the folks listed as missing in the fire, we knew when no one heard from either of them that Alex and Hanna had likely died that night. Exhausted, I had gone to sleep early this past Monday night. When I awoke at 4am, there was this text from Alex’s mom, Emilie Grandchamps: “Okay, they found them, Alex and Hanna. They found them dead together.” When you hear it from the mom, you know.
I loved that young man. We loved each other in our own way. And I was smitten by Hanna. They were true artists wrapped tightly in their own creative bond. I wrote Alex a text, before I went to sleep that last Thursday night, “Hanna is awesome. You lucky, bruh. Happy for you.” His last words to me: “Thank u.”
Thank you, my friend. We will never forget you.
Read an interview with Alex about his work here.
Contribute to Alex’s memorial page here.
For more of our tributes to the victims of the Oakland warehouse fire, please visit our remembrances page here.
For a printable poster of the illustration above, see here.