Rory Doyle: Challenging the Cowboy Culture with the Delta Hill Riders

Rory Doyle talks about documenting the daily life of the African American cowboys of his hometown for his winning series in this year’s ZEISS Photography Award.

Among the challenges for today’s documentary photographers is to tell the story of those who challenge the norms, and shed light on their everyday life. This year, the ZEISS Photography Award asked participants for their creative take on the brief of “The Unexpected” and produce a body of work with a strong, clear narrative. To this, Mississippi-based freelance photographer Rory Doyle responded with Delta Hill Riders; a poignant ongoing series on the vibrant yet overlooked community of African American cowboys in the rural Mississippi Delta.

Through this winning photo essay, Doyle doesn’t only introduce us to this unknown subculture in his hometown, he also challenges what we already know and expect when we speak of the cowboy subculture itself. “In America, the cowboy archetype is a heroic white figure — think John Wayne. But I felt there was a story to share here, one that embodies rural Mississippi, but also one that touches a history that reaches across our entire country.”

In our interview below, we asked Doyle for his thoughts on the competition, as well as his personal insights on the project itself.

Phoblographer: Hello Rory! Can you tell us something about yourself and what you do?

Rory Doyle: I am freelance photographer based in Cleveland, Mississippi, which is located in the rural Mississippi Delta. My career is a good mix of editorial and commercial work, and most recently, I’ve been very focused on my ongoing project about the subculture of African American cowboys and cowgirls in the Delta.

Phoblographer: When did you begin your career in photography? What made you get into the kind of photography that you do now?

Doyle: I actually studied print journalism as an undergrad student, and not until I took an optional course called Photojournalism 101 did I realize I wanted to tell stories through photos instead of writing. It was that introductory course where I really started getting interested in documentary photography work.

Phoblographer: Before we forget, congratulations on winning this year’s ZEISS Photography Award! We’re excited to learn more about your winning series, Delta Hill Riders. Was this the only body of work you considered entering to the competition? What made you decide to push through with it?

Doyle: Thank you so much! Winning the Zeiss Photography Award has been such an incredible experience. I just got back from the Sony World Photography Awards in London, where Zeiss officially presented me with the award. Zeiss then flew me to Germany where I toured the phenomenal headquarters. I was completely blown away by Zeiss’s dedication to quality, which is why their lenses are held with such high regard. The theme for this year’s award was “Seeing Beyond – The Unexpected.” From the very beginning, I felt my Delta Hill Riders project was a perfect fit, and I didn’t even consider a different body of work to enter. The goal of the project has been to shed light on an overlooked subculture in Mississippi, and in bigger terms, the much broader history of African American cowboys and cowgirls who have been overlooked throughout America.

Phoblographer: Delta Hill Riders, as you mentioned in the project description, explores the under-represented sub-culture of African American cowboys and cowgirls in the rural Mississippi Delta. How did you come across the sub-culture and explain to them your intent and goals in photographing them?

Doyle: I literally saw a small group of riders at the end of our annual Christmas parade in Cleveland, Mississippi. It was really the first time I had thought about the diversity of cowboy culture. In America, the cowboy archetype is a heroic white figure — think John Wayne. But I felt there was a story to share here, one that embodies rural Mississippi, but also one that touches a history that reaches across our entire country. From the very beginning, the riders here accepted me, and they were excited to have someone document them for the first time.

Phoblographer: What aspect of the people and their lifestyle did you think was most crucial for you to document?

Doyle: While I’ve photographed so much of the traditional cowboy customs like riding and taking care of the horses, I’ve also placed great emphasis on photographing these people in their homes and everyday life situations. I live here, and so I’m photographing them every few days. I’ve gotten to be quite close to a lot of the subjects, and it’s really nice to have such a tight bond with the people in the project. I want people to see there are important stories to share right in our own neighborhoods.

Phoblographer: Do you have an interesting story or experience from the project that you can share with us? Did it affect your perspective on the project in any way?

Doyle: There is a lot of joy throughout the project, and a number of people have told me they see this joy in the photos. Unfortunately, stories about African American culture are not always portrayed positively in our media, and it’s really nice to hear that people viewing the project gain an understanding that joy exists across all walks of life.

Phoblographer: Part of the challenge in documentary work is integrating with the community. What do you find to be the most effective way to achieve this, especially with a project like Delta Hill Riders?

Doyle: Being based here, I am able to see the people in the project every few days. To me, that really makes for better storytelling. So much of rural America feels disconnected from the national media, and think part of the reason is that most people reporting the news are based in rural America. Especially with long form journalism, it’s so important to have a true connection with the people you are reporting about.

Phoblographer: With the theme of this year’s contest being “Seeing Beyond – The Unexpected”, what stereotypes or expectations did you want to dismiss or address regarding the African American cowboys?

Doyle: Smithsonian recently published an article claiming that one in four cowboys were African American following the Civil War. But the Hollywood portrayal of cowboy culture did a poor job of recognizing these contributions. Being a cowboy means different things to people around the globe, but in America, the reality is that cowboy culture is much more diverse than the history books have shown.

Phoblographer: Which aspect of your photography do you feel makes your work truly your own? How do you make sure it shows in your projects?

Doyle: Delta Hill Riders is the first serious, long-term personal project I have ever conducted. Previously, I was always working for someone else, under their direction. This project has taught me the significance of committing time to personal work. This is where you truly begin to shape your personal style, because you are free to photograph the way that feels natural to you. Being a freelancer, you don’t always have the luxury of this freedom, but it’s imperative to find the time for both personal and paid work.

Phoblographer: Lastly, what for you makes a documentary photo or project compelling?

Doyle: It’s all about sharing stories through your photography. As a photojournalist, we present stories to a larger audience, and we hope that people feel inclined to learn more about the truths revealed in the images.

Check out Rory Doyle’s website and Instagram to stay updated with Delta Hill Riders and see the rest of his work.