Photographer Rory Doyle finds his most awarded subject matter among his neighbors in rural Mississippi and follows that same cowboys muse to the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Memphis and competitions in Cuba.
When Rory Doyle stepped into the middle of the annual Christmas Parade in Cleveland, Mississippi, in December 2016, he had no idea he’d just taken the first steps of a journey that would lead him to London, Berlin, and beyond. Or that it would make him, barely two years later, one of the world’s most celebrated photographers. Yet that’s exactly what happened to the man who at the time was the full-time staff photographer for Delta State University.
“It’s really hard to comprehend,” says Doyle, now 36, a Maine transplant who’s lived in Mississippi for a decade.
What brought Doyle and his camera into the street that day was an appearance by the Delta Hill Riders, a long-established group of African American cowboys and cowgirls based in the rural Mississippi Delta. The photos he snapped at the parade led to a relationship with the group; an invitation to document a black-heritage rodeo in Greenville, Mississippi; and an ongoing photo project that’s since racked up many prestigious awards.
In 2018, his Delta Hill Riders series won first place in the National Press Photographers Association’s best online gallery competition and earned Doyle the Photojournalist of the Year award at the world’s largest photography competition, the EyeEm Photo Awards in Berlin. In 2019, he was grand prize winner of the Smithsonian Photo Contest and the Zeiss Photography Award. Late last year, he traveled to London to show the project in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
“My career has definitely changed,” says Doyle, who’s now a full-time freelance photographer with publication credits that include The New York Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and ESPN The Magazine.
Black cowboys have been photographed and documented before, going back almost to the advent of the medium. An 1876 shot of Nat Love (aka Deadwood Dick) portrays the former slave turned cowboy with hat, lariat, and saddle, a document from the post-Civil War era of the great cattle drives, when freed slaves like Love found work in the West. By some estimates, one in four cowboys was black, and the tradition continues today.
Why isn’t that more well-known and more widely represented? Doyle doesn’t seek to answer those questions so much as just capture the compelling proof of contemporary black cowboy culture. What makes his Delta Hill Riders project unique is the tight bond Doyle was able to develop with his subjects. A startling intimacy is conveyed in each image, whether featuring a raucous dance at a local club or a cowboy father holding his newborn son on his first day home from the hospital.
“These people are my neighbors,” says Doyle, who shoots primarily with Sony and Nikon bodies and Zeiss lenses. “None of this would have been possible without the people opening their lives to me.”
The Smith family from Charleston, Mississippi, has been central to the project. “Their father started the tradition,” Doyle says. “His son, now in his 70s, told me, ‘I’ve been riding for more than 50 years, and no one’s paid any attention.’ They really enjoyed being heard and were willing to open up.”
In the field, Doyle keeps a relaxed, low profile. He says earning trust with subjects is as important to a good photo as equipment or technique. The approach is evident in another of his continuing projects, Global Cowboys, which so far has documented horse culture in countries including Mexico, Jamaica, Colombia, and Canada. One of its most arresting images features a young competitor at a rodeo in Sancti Spíritus, Cuba, an event Doyle and his wife sought out while on a trip.
“The cowboy scene in the town is so strong — it means so much to the people there,” he says. “It’s interesting because a lot of the equipment in Cuba is passed down. You see riders in chaps from Mexico and helmets from the United States.”
Doyle is extending both series. He’ll soon begin making audio recordings of the Delta Hill Riders and hopes to publish a book. “Right now it’s a survey project,” he says. “By interviewing some of the riders, I can get their voices in there, let them tell their own stories.”
See more of Rory Doyle’s work at rorydoylephoto.com.
Photography: Courtesy the artist
From our February/March 2020 issue.