Discover more from CrashOut by Ioan Grillo
Searching For Ross McDonnell
My friend and one of the best photographers of his generation disappeared in New York. Almost two weeks later, his body washed up on a beach in Queens.
On Saturday Nov. 4, Ross McDonnell arrived at his Brooklyn apartment about 10 pm after a characteristically busy day, photographing an anti-war march in the afternoon and going to a show in the eve. Growing up in Ireland, the 44-year old had spent much of the last two decades in New York. But he was always on the move: back in Dublin taking pictures of joyriders; rolling down dirt roads in Mexico with anti-cartel vigilantes; composing portraits of the war wounded in Afghanistan.
About half an hour later, he went out again; he was seen on CCTV leaving on his bike about 10.30 pm with a backpack and outdoor garms, khaki pants and a puffy vest. Then he disappeared.
Friends became worried on Sunday when he failed to follow up on dinner plans and by Monday afternoon they stepped up, finding his apartment empty and calling the police. Friend and fellow filmmaker Gene Gallerano knew that Ross had been doing loads of “wild swimming” over the last year and one of his favorite spots was the Fort Tilden beach in Queens. On Tuesday morning, Gene headed out and got the park police on the case. They located Ross’ bicycle double locked.
“I’ll never forget the moment of telling his mom and dad that he was missing,” Gene says. His parents immediately made plans to head to New York to support the search.
After combing the beach with ATV’s and a helicopter, the police finally brought in the sniffer dogs. They traced Ross’ scent straight from his bike to the sea.
On Friday Nov. 17, almost two weeks after Ross had gone missing, a body washed up on the nearby Breezy Point beach. After an initial autopsy, police said they believed it was Ross, as first reported by NBC News. “No foul play is suspected in the case and there is no indication of suicide,” it reported.
Following confirmation, Ross’ family in Ireland published a death notice with a funeral directors on Nov. 22.
The tragedy not only leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of his family as well as many friends and loved ones. It deprives the world of one of the best photographers and filmmakers of his generation.
I first met Ross in 2011 when he came to Mexico for a story on the venerated skeletal figure of the Santa Muerte. We went for coffee and ended up hitting a party. Ross was super sociable and soon knew half my friends in Mexico City and half their friends too. He was shooting me mails overflowing with story ideas and we began a series of road trips over the following years.
We filmed a riot in Guerrero when police charged into striking teachers. We bargained our way into the army’s “narco museum” of captured bling and into Mexico City’s female prison where babies are behind bars with their mothers. We ran to Michoacán after the death of a drug lord called “The Maddest One” and gate-crashed his wake (a scarred guy in a suit told us to fxxx off). We flew to Honduras for Time Magazine to track the wave of teenage migrants; we rolled with a local crime journalist who carried a mini Uzi before Ross took grandiose portraits of the Honduran president.
“Living the dream,” Ross called it. I find that phrase in half his emails.
It was a tough era to make it as a freelance foreign photographer but Ross was the most driven of the pack. He took pictures in Mexico City’s toughest market and survived a robber choking him out. He rented cheap old cars from a place near my house and sped down the highway into the badlands. (His dad was a pilot and Ross was a hell of a driver). He would take a zillion photos, still going at midnight.
Once we were editing a video back in Mexico City when gunshots echoed outside. He was straight out with his camera taking pictures of thugs in a firefight with the cops.
He was also on a different level in terms of pure artistic talent. This is one of his pictures of anti-cartel vigilantes that he generously allowed me to use in a book.
Ross loved Mexico and even got himself residency here. But his main apartment was in Brooklyn, he would bounce back to Ireland, and he chased stories across the continents. He covered the Ukraine conflict in 2014, running with both Russian militias (“the meat heads”) and the Ukrainian military. In Afghanistan, he took pictures of artisan prosthetic limbs, which got him short listed for the world’s pre-eminent photography prize Prix Pictet.
However, he earned his best living and awards over the last six years in TV. He won a whopping three Emmys, including for the series “The Trade” about human smugglers. (He can be seen filming that below when a migrant caravan clashed with Mexican police). He was cinematographer on “The First Wave,” about Covid in New York, which was nominated for an Oscar. The prizes go on. He was the journalist that so many aspire to be.
But he was always searching for more. He would talk deeply about our profession, analyze it as if from the outside and deconstruct it. As he wrote on his website, he looked for, “the open-ended nature of non-fiction and the tensions, inherent in the photographic process, between transience and permanence.”
While many people drift away, Ross always kept in touch. I stayed at his apartment in Brooklyn to cover a stint of the trial of El Chapo in 2019. He came back to Mexico City later that year with his girlfriend, who was wonderful and he seemed very much in love. He returned in 2020 and took an author portrait of me for a book. I last saw him in 2022 at an awards ceremony in New York.
We talked this summer, which he spent in Ireland. He had broken up with his girlfriend but he sounded positive and full of plans. We talked about pitching a new project together. This is part of the last voice message I have from him in which you can hear his rich Irish brogue and personal warmth.
I heard about him going missing the Monday after he was last seen and got into a group chat of friends. It rapidly grew into more than a hundred people: film directors, photographers, old school pals, all with deep stories of the times they spent with Ross, in Ireland, New York, Mexico, Ukraine. I realized I’d just seen one corner of his world and his life touched so many.
As Director Matthew Heineman, who worked with Ross on many of his films, said: “What sticks out most to me is his ability to walk into any room, any situation, any country, and gain people’s trust, to make them at ease, to let them be themselves…and he sustained those authentic relationships for weeks, or months, or sometimes even years. He loved the people he filmed. And they loved him back.”
For almost two weeks, the disappearance case moved slowly. Posters were put out for Ross but no solid information came back. Some clothes washed up on the beach, but it wasn’t confirmed if they were his.
There were still so many unanswered questions. Did he go to the beach on the Saturday evening or the Sunday morning? Did he camp out or stay elsewhere? What did the cameras on the bridges see? Where was his backpack and what was inside? Did he have any cameras with him? Were there no witnesses who saw him?
When the body was found perhaps none of this mattered. The loss is the same.
I took this picture below when we were in Honduras and he was finally getting some shut-eye after days of working at his relentless pace. I can’t take photos but I got him unaware, and like the way he is resting, peaceful and still smiling. His energy burns so bright. And there is so much love out there for you brother.
Photos from top: Hans Maximo Musielik; Ross McDonnell/Facebook; Hans Maximo Musielik; Ross McDonnell; Hans Maximo Musielik; Ioan Grillo.
UPDATE - The story was updated on November 21 to report the finding of the body and police believing it was Ross.
UPDATE 2 - The story was updated on November 22 to report the family publishing the death notice.
Narco Politics by Ioan Grillo is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.