Stories that change the way you see American culture are rare. The Delta Hill Riders project is one of those.
Rory Doyle is an editorial photographer based in rural Mississippi who focuses on documenting life in the rural southeast section of America. He is regularly tapped to create photography for national news media by the New York Times, Washington Journal, and Men's Journal. Doyle's photos are vibrant with the textures of his surroundings. But his ability to set you in a place and connect you with people is what stands out the most. Delta Hill Riders is a project that does just that. It is an ongoing series that will open your eyes to an overlooked American cowboy subculture.
When you think cowboys, a lot of people think John Wayne or famous country artists like Garth Brooks. The pillars of what we think of as "cowboy" are typically white and male. Cowboy culture in the southeast also runs deep in the African American community. The practice of owning and caring for horses goes back generations.
The 'cowboy' identity retains a strong presence in many black communities. This ongoing documentary project in the rural Mississippi Delta sheds light on an overlooked black subculture — one that resists both historical and contemporary stereotypes. Ultimately, the project aims to press against my own old archetypes — who could and could not be a cowboy, and what it means to be black in Mississippi — while uplifting the voices of my subjects.
Doyle first met a group of young riders after the annual Christmas parade in his hometown of Cleveland, Mississippi. At the end of the ceremony, he asked them if he could photograph their horses. The riders were excited to be documented for the first time. This chance encounter was a doorway into the subculture of the Delta Hills Riders. After that, he regularly got invited to Black heritage rodeos, horse shows, trail rides, "Cowboy Night" at Black nightclubs, and into homes across the Delta. This access has been fundamental to allowing him to shoot his project and has led him to embark on an iconic journey.
I felt there was a story to share here, one that embodies rural Mississippi, and one that's also tied to our national history. From the very beginning, the riders here accepted me, and they were excited to have someone document them for the first time.
In 2018 and 2019, Rory and the Delta Hills Project received numerous awards, and it has been shown dozens of times throughout the world. This includes being the grand prize winner of the Zeiss Photography Awards.
Photographers get involved in documentary work for many reasons, but for photographers living in rural areas, editorial photography may be the only opportunity to tell a meaningful story through the use of their photo skills. Personal work is often the best way for a photographer to grow professionally. People want to see your lens on the world. Doyle's secret sauce to creating a meaningful photo project is time.
I think the best work photographers create is personal work — because it's creativity that comes from the mind of the photographer, as opposed to a photo editor or creative director. One of the documentary's most significant elements is time. The photographer needs to spend time with their subjects to establish a deep and intimate connection.
Time allowed him to create lasting relationships with the riding community for the Delta Hill Riders project. These relationships give him an insider view. Some of his most interesting photos are inside the Riders’ homes surrounded by their whole family.
Approach to Shooting
The imagery in the Delta Hill Riders often blurs the lines between documentary and portraiture. This feature is because of Doyle's unique approach to getting coverage while on assignment.
My work is a good mix of portraiture and documentary, and I like that combination. I like to provide a wide survey of the overall topic so people can have a strong sense of the story, and I compliment that with portraits I set up. These portraits are imperative because they give viewers a close look into the eyes of the subjects, and it gives their narrative a direct voice.
This strategy ensues that he gets coverage of all the action unfolding in front of the camera. But this also allows for time to create designed shots where the subjects connect with the camera. It can be a strategy all photographers attempting to document something should try.
Future of the Project
Delta Hill Riders is more than a gallery showing or any number of accolades. Doyle is documenting the past, present, and future of Mississippi’s African American cowboy culture. Capturing this means spending time with a spectrum of generations. Telling a rich story requires time and a mix of approaches.
I'm still working on the project, and I plan to do that indefinitely. The next thing I'd like to do is professional audio interviews as a form of oral history, particularly with the older cowboys and cowgirls. These interviews will enhance the narrative as I plan to do a photo book within the next couple of years.
Doyle is taking a journalistic approach to this photo book. Capturing audio from real cowboys will open up many possibilities and multimedia avenues for the project.
Doyle has shown us an untold story from where he lives. One of the most important keys to the success of his project is taking a long way home. Even after two ears of showings and awards, the journey is not over. The beginning of the Delta Hill Riders project can be found on Doyle's website, along with some other exciting personal projects. If you want more up-to-date imagery of life in the Mississippi Delta, and news regarding the progress of the project, you should find Rory Doyle on Instagram and give him a follow. I'm glad I did.