rory doyle delta hill riders inframe usa america cowboy documentary photography storytelling storyteller

Interview Rory Doyle

Tell me how all begin?
I have lived in MS for almost 10 years, and I wanted to photograph something different from the normal stories in MS (poverty, bad education, blues music, farming). I saw a group of African American cowboys in our annual Christmas parade in 2016, and I went right up to them and asked if I could come to photograph them where they keep their horses. Seeing black cowboys in the parade made me realize I had done a bad job of understanding the diversity of cowboy culture in America.

When do you decide to do it what was your next move?
I was really curious about this subculture, so I just went right into the topic without doing much research. One of the cowboys in the parade invited me to a black heritage rodeo a couple weeks after the parade. At the rodeo, I met dozens of people who were excited to be photographed. Riders kept introducing me to more riders, and before long, I had met hundreds of cowboys and cowgirls in the region. Everyone was so welcoming and it wasn’t difficult to expand the body of work.

« Really, it’s all about trust. We have gotten to be pretty close because I have spent so much time documenting everyone. »
Those cowboys are united like a community or they are spread out over the state?
My project features cowboys specifically in the MS Delta region, which is 18 counties in the northwest part of Mississippi. However, there are riders all over the state, and there are black cowboys and cowgirls all across America. The local riders have accepted me as a family. They invite me to their homes and all their events.
How did you manage to enter inside their home and be close to them?
Really, it’s all about trust. We have gotten to be pretty close because I have spent so much time documenting everyone. I have been invited to their homes, but also to events like birthday parties and church events. From early on, I expressed to everyone that I wanted to document as many parts of their lives as I could. That made it very easy for them to feel comfortable with me around. I don’t think there was one moment where I succeeded at becoming close — but rather, everyone is so used to seeing me around with my cameras now.
Do you have a story to share and /or to talk about someone from your work?
There is a family on the edge of the MS Delta who I consider to be the nucleus of this subculture. The Smith family has owned and operated land with horses for over 40 years, and so many people in the region have been impacted by them. People congregate on their farm throughout the year for trail rides, horse shows, and parties.
« I grew up in Maine, which is not a diverse place like the MS Delta. It has been incredibly heartwarming to be accepted by the community. »
What was your interaction with the people you met and what this project means to you?
Everyone is so welcoming. People are often surprised that I am consistently around documenting them because it’s not a story that’s been told very deeply in rural Mississippi. People are excited by my excitement. My life has changed greatly because of this project. I grew up in Maine, which is not a diverse place like the MS Delta. It has been incredibly heartwarming to be accepted by the community.

Do you have a favorite photo/moment?
One of my favorite moments just happened recently when I was asked to join the local cowboy club called Delta Hill Riders. This is a big honor for me, and of course, this was not something I imagined happening when I first started photographing the riders.

What are your influences in photography?
I am very inspired by the level of talent in the photojournalism world right now. Thanks to Instagram, it’s easy to keep up with everyone’s meaningful work. I am influenced by the style of Ron Haviv, who I assisted at multiple documentary workshops in Mississippi. But I’m also inspired by my peers, like Courtney Garvin, who is exploring race relations with her work in the South.

I think that you continue your work in different countries looking for the « cowboy culture » Tell me more about this?
Through the MS cowboy project, I have become more intrigued by the interaction between horses and humans. It’s fascinating to think about the role horses have played in the development of cultures around the world. Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, I explore this relationship and see how each country and region has its own unique history. Locations I have explored are Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Jamaica and more.

Interview by Kalel Koven

Photographer’s Links: Website / Instagram / Facebook