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Story Publication logo December 21, 2023

Ross McDonnell’s Life and Work Were All About Connection

A group of Taliban fighters sit on a truck

This project focuses on the life-and-death dramas that play out every day in Afghanistan's Sharia...

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Multiple Authors

All of us here at the Pulitzer Center were saddened to learn of the death last month of our friend and grantee Ross McDonnell. Ross, 44, drowned in the waters off New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula.

A transplanted Dubliner who lived in Brooklyn, Ross was a gifted filmmaker who collaborated earlier this year with photographer and fellow grantee Victor Blue to produce Swift Justice, a remarkable short documentary for The New Yorker about Sharia courts in Afghanistan.

“Ross was an incredible talent and an even better person,” said Victor. “He is mourned and deeply missed by a huge community.”

— Tom Hundley, Pulitzer Center senior editor

Read Victor’s remembrance, originally published in The New Yorker, below:

Image courtesy of Victor Blue.

We filmed the Taliban courts together. When my friend and colleague disappeared, I started reëxamining his films and photographs.

In November, Ross McDonnell, the Irish filmmaker and photographer, died while swimming in the ocean at Fort Tilden beach, in Queens, New York. Ross was forty-four, a giant as a filmmaker and photographer, widely published and lauded for his photographs and cinematography. He was committed to the mission of documentary work: to make meaning from the events of our times.

“Swift Justice,” by Victor Blue and Ross McDonnell, offers an unrivalled look at the heart of the Taliban’s Afghanistan, after the group captured Kabul in 2021.

The author (right), with Ross McDonnell, in Kabul, in 2022, after shooting the documentary “Swift Justice.” Image courtesy of Victor Blue.

In 2022, Ross and I met for coffee in Brooklyn. I had recently returned from covering the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, and told him about the Sharia courts that were now the official legal system there. He listened carefully and said, “That sounds like a film.” Four months later, we were in the heat and dust of the southern part of the nation, making the New Yorker Documentary “Swift Justice.”

Things were tough from the get-go. The Taliban threw us in jail on our second day in Kandahar. Later, we were tailed by a unit from the Taliban intelligence section. Ross was relentlessly attentive. During the Sharia court proceedings, held in a brutally hot, tiny, pink room with a single window, he caught every glance, every tick. Ross would pick his way through the seated plaintiffs and defendants and install himself right beside the judges. At first, they were startled, shooting each other grim looks, but Ross eventually disarmed with his easy smile; soon they hardly noticed him.

We knew we were telling an important story about what “Sharia”—a label often used in the West as a cudgel to sow distrust of Muslims—actually meant in this context. We talked about the challenge of getting beyond the two-dimensional visual shorthand, established in decades of coverage of the global war on terror, of beards, turbans, and commandeered U.S. rifles. The Taliban authorities vacillated between grudging accommodation and weary rejection of our attention, but Ross had an uncanny ability to connect. He learned Pashto words and peppered them into conversations throughout the day. He made friends with locals, and made them laugh. He charmed the judges with trivia and a friendly demeanor. On one day, the group was tickled to hear Ross’s assertion that Ireland has more cows than people.

Riot police keep a fire hose aimed at protesters on Hrushevskoho Street in central Kyiv, on January 25, 2014. Image by Ross McDonnell, courtesy of the McDonnell Family.

The shoot tested our capacities and our patience, sometimes with each other. We were both relentless in pursuing our sometimes competing visions, approaches, priorities. At one point, we were so fed up with each other that I told a friend over text that I thought I was going to throttle him. But, when I got home, I told that same friend that I couldn’t imagine ever making a film with anyone else.

Ross went missing in November, and, while waiting and hoping for news, I started reëxamining his films and photographs. What strikes me most are the faces. Ross studied them, delighted in capturing the complexities of personality and expression. He knew that the world was a complicated place, that the easy assumptions were usually the wrong ones. He was courageous in his demand that you listen to the lads in Dublin’s Ballymun estate, bear witness to the chaos of the Mexican drug cartels, or try to understand Taliban judges: he focussed on figures who are often rendered as caricatures.

A still image made during the filming of the documentary “The First Wave,” at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. Image by Ross McDonnell, courtesy of the McDonnell Family.

One of several prosthetics, photographed in 2012, made by Afghans who had to rely on their own ingenuity when they were wounded in war. Image by Ross McDonnell, courtesy of the McDonnell Family.

The last time I saw Ross was the weekend before he disappeared. We were shooting pictures at a protest against the Israeli invasion of Gaza. I was struck, as I always had been, by his concentration, the way his eyes scanned the scene while he held the camera under his chin, waiting. Then whatever moment he was hunting would reveal itself. He would raise the camera, and freeze it.

After two weeks of searching, we got the devastating news that Ross was gone. A message thread with many of his friends and colleagues started to swell with anecdotes and photos: adventures with him in the field, shared youth back in Ireland, road trips and good times shared. I scrolled and scrolled, absorbing all these accounts, these folks writing about the ways that time with Ross had altered the contours of their lives.

The more I read, the more I missed him, the more I was proud of him. To live like that, doing decades of committed, compassionate work, with so many people eager to testify to your vibrancy, fraternity, and loving care. What more could any of us want from life? I guess just to make it back in from the breaking waves and the rocks. To walk up on the shore, sit shivering on the sand, and drink it all in. For it all to last just a little longer. 

An image of a bonfire from the book “Joyrider,” from 2021, in which McDonnell documents Dublin’s infamous and now demolished Ballymun Flats. Image by Ross McDonnell, courtesy of the McDonnell Family.


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