Kent Avenue Interview Series: Ross McDonnell

McDonnell in Afghanistan

McDonnell in Afghanistan

Ross McDonnell is a freelance photographer and videographer born in Dublin, Ireland and a former resident of the apartments at 475 Kent Avenue in South Williamsburgliving among the world-class photographers who inspired this ongoing interview series. His work takes him to regions in the throes of violent conflict, including Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Mexico, with images often created using unique processes to better capture the mood of his subject. That includes using glass plates bathed in chemicals to create 19th-century-style black-and-white ambrotypes for his series, Vigilantes, chronicling Mexico's anti-cartel Auto Defensa members. Yet McDonnell also embraces photography's ever-evolving future, as Time magazine noted in naming one of his Ukraine images to their Top 10 Photos of 2014: 

"Changes in this industry have also favored adaptation, and Ross McDonnell is a testament to that fluidity. In January, as the demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev were peaking in violence, the documentary filmmaker transitioned seamlessly between still and motion. Over the course of several days, he made rich, painterly, cinematic photographs and videos. His picture through the view of a bus window (#4) shows an almost biblical scene of fire and ice."

On the effect of his Ukraine images, McDonnell wrote in Time's LightBox section, "I wonder now, with the benefit of hindsight, whether the week’s images, that deluge of countless photographs, truly represents the political crisis in the Ukraine, or merely illustrates a scenario perfectly tailored to the power of the still image." Regardless, another of his Ukraine photosone with three Ukrainian soldiers near the siege of Debaltsevo in the country's contested eastern regionwas named one of Time's Top 10 Photos of 2015:

Courtesy of the artist

Courtesy of the artist

In his description for the photo, McDonnell waxes poetic on the eerie beauty of the landscape, writing:

"That morning, it seemed as though the fight for Debaltsevo had been lost to the Pro-Russian Separatists. We were on the road early, in the blue half-light. The hoar frost had enveloped the countryside, and fog sat low over the road. Between lines of tanks, GRAD rocket launchers and military transports, a group of soldiers played football in the road, their breath catching the frozen air.

It was impossible not to think of World War I in that static, etheral [sic] moment. The ice and fog seemed to blanket the landscape and indeed, the emotions of the scene, temporarily delaying the shock of defeat and the reveal of the aftermath. 

Three Ukrainian National Guardsman, off to the side of the road, seemingly reflect this sentiment too, their expressions in the resulting photograph, perhaps silently weighing up the consequences of war."

It's been 10 years since McDonnell began chronicling an Irish neighborhood that, to outsiders, evokes the lawless conflict zones found in his Mexican and Ukrainian work. The Ballymun flats (or "the Mun") are seven 15-story government-built housing towers constructed in the 1960s to relieve overcrowding in Dublin's slums. By the time McDonnell began snapping photos there on Halloween night 2006, its residents were largely unemployed, with no nearby shops, and a younger generation that had turned to drug dealing for income and burning cars for fun. McDonnell chronicled this youthful community of Ballymun for his series, Joyrider. The photographs were first published in The Fader within a piece written by Donny Mahoney and with McDonnell noting of their subjects, "These pictures document the transition from anti-social behavior to criminality, from childhood to adulthood without a 'youth' in between."

In 2010, McDonnell told the cinematic story of a different species of community, co-directing the documentary film, Colony. Traveling around the country, he interviewed beekeepers and examined the effects of colony collapse disorder wherein bee communities die en masse.

McDonnell recently paid a return visit to 475 Kent for an interview with me on the building's rooftop. He discussed Joyrider, his photography projects in Ukraine, Mexico, and Afghanistan, and his approach to descending into (and reemerging from) countries gripped by violence.

On his Joyrider series

It was maybe the first project that I did that gained momentum and highlighted my photography work. I published it in 2008. It was definitely at an interesting time for blogging, and a lot of people were writing about photography. So there seemed to be a kind of rapid dissemination across curated platforms. That was interesting, and it’s a moment that has now passed and people are sharing things more on social media. It’s difficult to predict what might hit and what might not. But this was an interesting project that seemed to cross over some boundaries. It was black-and-white work in a kind of documentary tradition, but not really a fully sociological survey. The images are quite cinematic with sort of the suggestion of movement. It was published originally in The Fader as a kind of street photography piece. The creative director at The Fader, Phil Bicker, was a very well-known character in the London and New York photo worlds. I suppose Phil would take a lot of credit for taking that work and putting it in a place where it could be seen. He was an art director who had worked in the 1990s fashion scene in London for i-D magazine and Face magazine and these kind of genre-busting fashion mags of the ‘90s. Then he had transplanted himself to New York and had taken up this job at The Fader, which was predominantly a hip-hop street culture and music magazine. There’s a lot of photographers in my generation who owe their break to Phil at that time. He took a different direction when he went to The Fader and started publishing more traditional documentary work and giving photojournalists and documentary photographers a platform to shoot artists and portraitsand all in a very loose reportage kind of style. So he published [Joyrider] originally, and it was great. It was published in Ireland as well, and I don’t think people had seen this sort of wonton side of Irish life.

[Ballymun] is a place that was very iconic and on the outskirts of Dublin. It was a social housing project that had been built in the ‘60s, and they transplanted a lot of the inner-city tenement buildings and dwellers out into this sort of peripheral part of the city that was built on farmland, essentially with these seven iconic 15-story towers all around a ring road. You can see in YouTube videos from the early ‘70s where youth workers are saying, “They moved us all out of the city, but they haven’t given us anything. There’s no shops. There’s no buses.” So you had a lot of these traditionally inner-city families and a lot of itinerant families. Like traveling communities, they were trying to resettle in these social housing projects. Within 15 or 20 years, that community was riddled with a heroin epidemic and rife with urban crime. It was always a notorious place when I grew up, and the legend was that they had a football pitch in the middle of the seven towers and they’d called it the "San Siro" because the atmosphere was so difficult to play in. So when I started photographing there [in late 2006], there’d been the beginnings of a European urban regeneration scheme, and the decision was made that the towers were in too bad of a conditioneven though when they opened, they had underfloor heatingand there were three bedrooms that were huge. They were built of concrete. There was always running water. By the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, you could see scenes where travelers were using the flats as stables and they were bringing horses up and down in the elevators and not living in them. They’d return to their caravans, as the situation was so bad in some of the places. It became a sad, crime-ridden sort of neighborhood, not without its redemption but still very lacking in amenities.

"Friends of mine were talking about homes and second homes, and I felt like I’d never really wandered around Ireland as a place, and now this sort of wild soul part of it was disappearing."

I started photographing that when I was in my mid-20s, and it was just after a period of living in New York when I really started working with a camera as a photographer. So I went back to Ireland and I saw this country that was in the throes of a huge economic boom"The Celtic Tiger". Friends of mine were talking about homes and second homes, and I felt like I’d never really wandered around Ireland as a place, and now this sort of wild soul part of it was disappearing. So I started traveling around the country a little bit, going to some of the islands and rural communities and a lot of the inner-city communities in Dublin, just taking street pictures the same way as I had done in New York. Then I stumbled across Ballymun and met a few people, and that was the rabbit hole then just to focus on that. I met all these teenage kids who were stealing cars, selling lots of crack and heroin, carrying guns, and all in the empty edifices of these destroyed buildings. It was a crazy scene. But they sort of accepted me as their erstwhile documentarian and protected me, and I understood that they were a little bit edgy. So we had a great relationship. I’m still friends with some of them even today. Now they’re all fathers, and I still go out there and say hello to all of them and have made further projects there, making short films and documentary projects, and some other photographic studies of the place. So it’s been an ongoing relationship.

On photographing Afghanistan

McDonnell in Afghanistan. Photo by Jared Moossy

"I felt that this was a country that had been in conflict for 30 years, had been a pawn in this geopolitical chess game, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was anymore."

Afghanistan was a place that, when I first went there, I was grateful to have met so many great Afghan people. In a way, I was very naïve to wander around Afghanistan and be like, “Oh, these people are great,” and not really look at the geopolitical picture in a close way. But again, I approached it in just a traditional sense and returned to Afghanistan with a very loose idea about trying to depict some idea of national identity. I felt that this was a country that had been in conflict for 30 years, had been a pawn in this geopolitical chess game, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was anymore. Was it tribalism? Was it a sort of modern post-Soviets place? Was it now becoming a sort of American construction? An international project? A failed state? All of those things. I was documenting these Afghans and the dynamics that were keeping them from self-determination. They had imposed democracy there, but it was failing. There were tribal feuds. There was a dual system of government. Just this idea that Afghanistan had so much promise, but at the same time all of these agents that involved themselves in the country were preventing these Afghans from the self-determination that maybe they don’t even want. That seemed to be what was lacking there. So I was focusing a little bit on these elements: the refugee situation, their IDPs, Afghan culture, migration, food scarcity, PTSD, psychological illness, labor, natural resources. I tried to think about photographing these things in a very romantic way to sort of mimic a South Asian sort of imagerya sort of kitsch hand-painted photography and these travel logs from the 1890s on these far-off Afghanis to mimic the style of the imagery I saw when I first travelled in South and Central Asiaglass plate negatives and autochromes, these highly colorized images of this desert land like early photography from when the Brits were there. Trying to utilize that in a way kind of like a travelogue. In hindsight, it was probably a very naïve thing. I got some small grants to go and do that work, and then I went back there working on the documentary. It was like by choosing to ignore this sort of international situation and the militarization of the country and go down and do conflict photography, I probably missed a line in that picture, but in a way I sort of chose to ignore it just to keep some element of the project about these people.

I first went there in 2007, then 2009, 2011, and 2012 was the last time I was there. So I travelled there many, many times. 2007 was still in this kind of post-Taliban phase where Kabul was a little bit like the Wild West with a lot of foreign journalists, aid agencies, a lot of money, security contractors, bars, and late-night partying. Then, increasingly, every time I’ve returned, it’s gotten more and more conservative. Those first trips, I was traveling nationwide around the country on local buses in some very, very far-flung places that are now completely under Taliban rule. In those years, it was very easy to do that, and every time I’ve been back the situation has deteriorated there to the point where your security is an issue.

On Colony

"It was a sort of American road trip straight through 2008-2009 during the financial crisis, following all of these fascinating beekeepers around the country as they struggled to come to terms with what was happening to their industry."

The project was financed through the Irish Film Board, which is like state-sponsored filmmaking in Ireland, basically. They finance and produce feature films, documentaries, and short films, and they were very interested in the idea. It was a big environmental story at the time when the film was made and continues to be to this day. The film was interesting to make. It was a sort of American road trip straight through 2008-2009 during the financial crisis, following all of these fascinating beekeepers around the country as they struggled to come to terms with what was happening to their industry. So it was a fascinating film to make and one I was delighted to experience. It’s like one of those things that interests you in photography and in filmmaking and you’re learning something. There was certainly a steep learning curve, and the science behind all of this, the characters involved, the history and importance of the bee, the symbolism of that, its function as a pollinator, its mythology, its biology—all of these things were things that I had to familiarize myself with and become, in a way, a spokesperson for. We were traveling, meeting these different beekeepers who were all going through the same thing at the same time, and we had the fortunate position to have interviewed industry leaders, scientists, professors at universities, pundits, and  journalists who were all experts in this. So we would meet these beekeepers and eventually we would be able to sort of distribute information to them, in a way. “Oh, we met this guy and this is what he thinks," and they’d be like, “Oh, interesting!” So it became a fascinating project to work on.

I’ve always been a fan of filmmaking, and I’m fortunate enough that that’s what I’m doing at the moment for work. I think you just approach stories and tailor-make them to what you’re doing. I think you could do a fascinating photographic study of [Colony's] world as well, but this was a documentary feature film that was sort of commissioned in a certain way. The vision for the project was sort of laid out in a certain way, and it sort of built its own world. I think every projectonce you find something that makes it click, that’s the foundation stone, and then from that you can build a world around it. That’s what the creative process is, in a way. That’s why we love photographers with their voices, or filmmakers with their voices, because we like that their thought process emerges with this formed body of work, whether it’s photography, writing, a plate of food, or whatever it might be. I think you can create interesting bodies of work around any theme.

On magazine work

I’ve probably worked on three dozen feature documentaries as I cover the conflict in Ukraine for Time Magazine. Again, the photo editor whom I started off working with at Fader then worked at Time Magazine and also brought a lot of the same school of photographers in as young photojournalists. I was lucky enough last year and the year before to have one of the top ten photos of the year in Time Magazine from the conflicts in Ukraine and sort of get a sense more of being a real live photojournalist, which in the context of my work in Afghanistan and in Ireland was kind of like documentary work, I would say. So a lot of the work I’ve done for magazines was certainly proper photojournalism. That was very exciting and another interesting approach that you learn to try and construct properly in the same way that you might construct a documentary narrative or a black-and-white dreamy photo essay. All of these things have their codes and their signifiers, and you learn those different genres and those different approaches of what works for a picture editor at a major international and news magazine is not the same thing that a creative director chooses for a fashion hip-hop magazine.

On his 2014 Time photo of Ukraine

"It’s saying, 'We’re all watching this.' It’s saying, 'This is all being photographed,' and 'How did we react to it? With apathy. How has the government reacted to it? With violence.'"

It’s probably a picture I would never have chosen, but in the editing of the magazine, people who work at that level do those jobs because they’re incredibly visually skilled and nuanced, and they know how to take one of your images and put it in a place that’s going to change the context of the picture and give it an extra meaning. That’s really where you start to see, as a photographer, that your delusions of grandeur and your egomania are not welcome among picture editors because they’re really good at their jobs and they do those jobs for that reason. They’re going to be able to place your work in a way that elevates the context of it, or use the design and the elements and the geometry of those images for maximum impact. It’s great to work with those people, and it’s great that they respect the fact that you’re out there doing your thing and are trying to balance all these elements of the photographic world.

Courtesy of the artist

Courtesy of the artist

The picture was from during the Maiden protest in Ukraine, and they published a whole series that they titled ‘Fire and Ice in Kiev’ because it was all of these scenes of these enormous fires, and then these totally surreal scenes of just frozen winter landscape while these crazy riots were happening. One of the pictures they chose was framed by this burnt-out bus on the frontline. It was a perfect frame, and within the frame was this completely frozen landscape that was burning. There were sporadic fires through it and this line of riot cops in the distance with this black smoke. So the frame of the window provided this perfect border onto the picture. It was the line looking at the government forces framed as a photograph, in a way. I would never propose to read into the image in that way, but I suppose that was the view of all of the photographers who covered that revolution and made it the event it was.

So maybe there is a sinister element to that selection. It’s saying, "We’re all watching this." It’s saying, "This is all being photographed," and "How did we react to it? With apathy. How has the government reacted to it? With violence." There’s an interesting dialogue going on there perhaps.

On photographing Mexico

I lived in Mexico for five years and covered a lot of work surrounding the narco conflict and vigilante movements in Mexico, doing film and photographic work. 

It was a pretty tough few years in the late ‘90s, 2000s Tijuana, where there was a plaza and there was a battle going on for that plaza, and then that sort of started conflicts in Sinaloa, and then Juarez, and then Michoacán, and all over the country. TamaulipasI went there originally right after we finished Colony. I had to develop a feature documentary in Juarez that was about the drug war there with Charles Bowden who used to write for Harper's Magazine. He was a brilliant writer, amazing. A poet, too. New Mexico was kind of his stomping ground. He wrote extensively about Trinity and the nuclear process there, and he wrote about Juarez extensively. In the ‘90s he was writing books about the maquilas, and the sort of forced labor that was happening in Juarez, called The Laboratory of Our Future. I just thought he was a brilliant writer. He'd written a book about Juarez called Murder City, and we wanted to turn that audio book into a kind of border narco-noir documentary called Muerte & Me that was about this culture of violence that was exploding in Juarez. Unfortunately, because of our European financiers, they weren't particularly keen on the subject. It's a very difficult film to finance. Being European filmmakers, it was probably the first time it worked against me because it was a very Americanized issue, in a way. Mexico always has a place in the American discourse, and in the Latin American discourse. Being European, I think the project people just didn't really get it. We had developed it to a certain point, and they didn't finance it. I ended up staying in Mexico for a number of years freelancing work as a photographer, working as a cinematographer on other documentaries, traveling a lot around the country and covering a lot of crime, narco traffic stories, and vigilante movements then in Guerrero and Michoacán. A fascinating time. I won't claim to know a lot still about Mexico, because that's the nature of the place and its complexities, but it's a wonderful country.

On covering conflict

"...even if the circumstances are working against them, I feel as a photographer, as a filmmaker, the first rule is acceptance in that you never walk into any situation, even in the most crazy scenario, and act like it's out of the realm of normality. Because whoever you're working with, that's their reality at that moment and that's what they're living in."

Ireland still remains the good microcosm because it's such a petri dish of that experience, and I think you can see two sides of it. One side is people's willingness to effect change in their own lives, and maybe that's the type of people I'm drawn to. But I think oftentimes in these scenarios, people are trying to take charge of what's happening around them, and the immediate driver of that is upheaval and sometimes violence in its aftermath. On the best side of that, people are doing it to change their circumstances so that their children and the next generation don't have to suffer that. On the worst side of it, you have money and power and those influences. So you are seeing those two forces colliding many times, and you are hoping that you are going to side with the people who are trying to effect change for a better future and not the people who are trying to instill more corruption and more instability. So, oftentimes I find myself working at the community level (just to loop back to Ireland) with people who I can trust within that community, whatever it is. So even if the circumstances are working against them, I feel as a photographer, as a filmmaker, the first rule is acceptance in that you never walk into any situation, even in the most crazy scenario, and act like it's out of the realm of normality. Because whoever you're working with, that's their reality at that moment and that's what they're living in. I think in many ways that's an unconscious thing, where you just walk in and the situation is completely normal. Maybe the difficulty you have is returning from these places to the world where you are at a party that's supposed to be civilized and you find it awkward or abnormal having to network or having to be part of some kind of social group that you don't feel comfortable in. Because in many ways, a lot of these places, the first thing people do is welcome you into their home and ask about your life. You have a display of mutual understanding and acceptance that’s very powerful. Also, the privilege of people saying, "Yes, I understand why you are here, and it's OK for you to document my life at this moment." Whether that's un-communicated acceptance or not, it's present. Oftentimes, it’s when you have those profound types of experiences that [it's difficult] coming back into the cut and thrust of city living and trying to re-integrate to those different societal rules, or the more detached society as we now see it.

On film vs digital

I continued to do a lot of film work when digital photography first came in. I’m certainly by no means an early adopter of that, but on the other side of that equation you realize that the actual photography doesn’t change. It’s still capturing moments in the present, so any sort of discussion around that probably means you’re not out there taking pictures. I suppose for a photographer in the analog era, it was more a loss of identity than anything else that came with that transition. That might be the fair thing to say. Photographers worried that they weren’t special anymore, that everyone was running around with a camera and it was instantly reproducible and shareable and something of the craftsmanship of the alchemy was taken away from it. But I suppose now that we’ve been doing it for so long, you fundamentally realize that it’s still something you need to practice and that you’re as connected to the moment as you want to be. That’s why I certainly was interested in photographybecause it’s a unique sort of alchemic process, and that doesn’t change. If you’re going out thinking you’re not capable of taking good images because you’re using a digital camera, you’re just not focused on the moment enough. So I think there’s a process adaptation to that. But I still shoot lots of analog projects with no problems. I think the results are pretty impressive.

On black-and-white vs color

"I enjoy a moment of black-and-white photography where there’s an alchemy happening, where that present that you’ve captured is sort of removed from the reality of the momentabstracted."

I really fell in love with black-and-white photography many years ago. I enjoy a moment of black-and-white photography where there’s an alchemy happening, where that present that you’ve captured is sort of removed from the reality of the momentabstracted. That’s what the really interesting thing about photography is. You can put it in a simple way and, say, when you make a mistake with a black-and-white shot, it can be beautiful and full of motion and poetry. That’s an incredibly powerful thing and probably what seduced me with photography in the first place. There’s a rigor and a discipline just to doing that as well that I really respect. Again, with the decision-making process, I think some projects you can mix both [black-and-white and color]. Some just more naturally lend themselves to color photography. But I’m a huge fan of black-and-white work. I would like to only do that, but color is seductive.

On 475 Kent

"I would ride my bike past this building and say to myself, 'I’m going to live in that building one day. It looks like a great place to live. Look at the view.'"

I used to work down in DUMBO many years ago when I first moved to New York. I lived in Greenpoint at the time, and I would ride my bike past this building and say to myself, “I’m going to live in that building one day. It looks like a great place to live. Look at the view.” So I think I was looking for an apartment at one point, and I saw just the windows in the picture and I was like, “I’m going to go over there today. That’s that building.” I ended up living here for a couple years. I was lucky. 

I actually photographed a lot just in the apartment. I don’t think I brought anybody to the roof to do a photo shoot. It’s always funny watching people doing it. I mean, it is classic. It’s a great space. The light’s always been beautiful. It’s a trip.

When I was living in New York previously, some of my friends who were studying photographyI’d heard they would come over here and hang out when Sammy Green, David Alan Harvey, maybe Alex Majoli and all those guys were all residents in the building, and there just seemed to be a gang of young groupie photographers who would come over here to chill. But it was years until I actually lived here, and at the time I was working in film almost exclusively. I wasn’t doing any photographic work. So it was a strange place to be in because all of my photographer friends knew of its reputation, but at the time I lived here I wasn’t really working in photography, so I never used it to my advantage to meet editors or photographers.  I think my career as a photographer has always kind of swung between doing a couple years really focused on it and ending up publishing a lot of work in magazines or completing some projects, and then going back to doing film work.