Ross McDonnell obituary: Gifted filmmaker who saw the world through a lens

‘He couldn’t wait to see beyond the shores. He couldn’t wait to see what was on the other side of the rise,’ recalls producer Trevor Birney

Born: October 29th, 1979

Died: November 5th, 2023

Ross McDonnell was an image maker of prodigious gifts who was forever leaning into the next big adventure. Excelling as cinematographer, still photographer and documentary director, the Dubliner, who has died in New York at the age of 44, won two Emmy awards, was shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Pictet award and published an acclaimed photobook on the Ballymun estate in Dublin.

Colony, his first feature as director, a study of declining bee populations, won best debut from the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2009 and took best film at the Anaheim Film Festival. He collaborated on such prestigious documentaries as Sinead O’Shea’s A Mother Brings Her Son To Be Shot, Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned and Ciaran Cassidy’s Jihad Jane.


Friends and colleagues, on hearing his body had been found after an apparent accidental drowning, all spoke of his irrepressible love of travel and urge to combat injustice. He shot images of conflict in Mexico, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Haiti and all points beyond. “He was never in one place for very long,” the director John Carney said. “I remember thinking, when I would hang out with him, he makes my life seem incredibly suburban and boring. Some filmmakers pretend to be that, but he actually did it.”

He was also really idealistic. Despite the suffering he witnessed and the cynicism that could result, he wanted things to change

—  Sinead O’Shea, documentarian

Raised in Howth, Co Dublin, McDonnell attended St Andrew’s College in Booterstown, going on to study for a communication degree in Dublin City University, and then completed an MA in film production at Dublin Institute of Technology on Aungier Street. He later remembered that course as “a year spent operating cameras and pulling focus on other people’s films”.

Trevor Birney, with whom McDonnell worked on such projects as Elián and No Stone Unturned, recalled sharing memories of childhood while the two men were shooting in Cuba. It seems McDonnell, appropriately for a man raised by the sea, was forever brimming with wanderlust. “The world was out there,” Birney said. “He just couldn’t wait to get out to the world. He couldn’t wait to see beyond the shores. He couldn’t wait to see what was on the other side of the rise.”

In 2003, he moved to the United States and honed his still images while hustling for film work. Speaking to the United Nations of Photography in 2012, he addressed the freedom that working with the static image allows. “You can just pick up your camera and start a project without having to formalise it, or put together a crew,” he said.

McDonnell has credits as a still photographer on Lance Daly’s Kisses from 2008, and, in 2012, on Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, a study of clerical sexual abuse in Ireland. Further credits in parallel fields accumulated. Cinematographer on Kirsten Sheridan’s Dollhouse. Second unit work on Daly’s Black ‘47. Colony, co-directed with Carter Gunn, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009.

Produced by Morgan Bushe and Macdara Kelleher, the gripping documentary took us across the United States as beekeepers coped with “colony collapse”. The film was both eerie and troubling, but McDonnell, for all his political engagement, did not see it as a work of activism. “I think it irked some of the audience because they came to it wanting to see some kind of environmental call to arms,” he said. “But it wasn’t really that type of film. Sometimes documentary can be as subjective a medium as fiction.”

The collaboration with Gibney, among the most admired and busiest of contemporary documentarians, proved fruitful. He acted as cinematographer on the American’s No Stone Unturned from 2017, an examination of the 1994 Loughinisland massacre, in which six men were murdered while watching the World Cup in a Co Down pub.

Birney, who produced, remembers McDonnell, then living in Brooklyn, coming to Loughinisland to shoot interviews with families of victims and members of the Irish soccer squad. His level of intensity was immediately obvious. It was clear this was a man immersed in the material. He knew what the end product was going to look like.

He saw the world as if it was a movie for the cinema

—  Paulo Nunes dos Santos, friend

Around the same time he encountered Sinead O’Shea, another busy documentarian, and the two commenced work on her searing film, A Mother Brings Her Son To Be Shot. The picture, concerning tragic hangovers from the Troubles in Derry, emerged to acclaim in 2017. O’Shea’s experiences working with McDonnell as a cinematographer spoke to his unselfish dedication to the work. “He was so generous,” she said. “He gave his time, mostly for free, for the first three years on that project. He was also really idealistic. Despite the suffering he witnessed and the cynicism that could result, he wanted things to change.”

McDonnell’s CV continued to swell. Elián, his film, co-directed with Tim Golden, on Elián Gonzalez, the Cuban who was subject of a famous custody battle, arrived to strong reviews in 2017. Joyrider, his monograph on Ballymun, was published in 2021. In the same year he won an Emmy Award for his cinematography on Matthew Heineman’s Showtime series The Trade. Twelve months later he won another Emmy for the same director’s The First Wave. At the time of his death, he was planning a film with his good friend Paulo Nunes dos Santos inspired by faith healers in Ireland.

“He saw the world through a lens,” Nunes dos Santos said. “He saw the world as if it was a movie for the cinema.”

He is survived by his parents Maureen and Nicky, his sister Louise, niece Eva and by an extended family.